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This is but one of the
tall tales-LEGENDS of which the people speak.
Long ago, when the first builders were a new wave, they lived on the planet of their own creation, the legendary Crux.
These first builders ruled Crux, and all four of the realms each one ruled were prosperous and peaceful (primarily because several generations ago all the troublesome people had been thrown off the edges of the planet, for unlike Earth, crux really WAS a cube and it darn sure had an edge!).
But one day, when the time was right, the first builders left Crux, leaving the four realms to lead their own lives with each other. The first builders left the four realms a gift, and told them to guard it with their lives. But the builders were in a hurry to avoid traffic, and forgot to tell them why it was so important, or even what the gift was, or even WHERE it was.
For a while, there was peace. The four realms lived in harmony for generations, happy in not knowing what it was they were supposed to be guarding or how they should be going about that. There was peace between them, until one day something changed.
No one knows exactly what happened that changed, but something did (one theory proposed by some of the archaeologists digging on Crux Prime is that in their haste, the first builders actually forgot to leave their gift on Crux and had to put it through the snail mail once they reached their destination, and this is the result of the package's arrival). Anyways, the people from each region started getting together with the people from other regions less often. They no longer intermingled. Eventually they broke off all diplomatic ties to each other and went their own ways. In this manner, the unity that once held Crux together was split.
(The first builders, by the way, were too busy making intricate plans for the future of aqua magna and Bara magna to notice these unfortunate happenings)
The conflicts on Crux soon escalated. Eventually, all the people needed was an excuse to unleash total war and chaos on each other. Soon, a tiny dispute between two of the four realms became a declaration of war (this is when the other archaeologist say the package arrived, and they say that IT was the straw that broke the camels back).
The first side (who were called the Elementrons after the builder who was their ex-dictator) was very warlike, and saw everything as an opportunity to learn a better way of defeating your opponents. The first step, they said, was to make them fear you, so they decided to follow the path of the fearsome dragon. But their costume designer mixed up the orders, and they ended up looking like Bats instead. They were also quite militaristic, and had an organized, well functioning army. But they also knew this, and so they mocked their opponents seeing them as a rag-tag group of peasants. At the first battle, one of their leaders (or "Lords") is credited for stopping the battle to ask the opposing army if "this was all just some jest?"
But their opponents, the Imaginatrixians (again, named after the builder who had ruled them), were very cunning. And very arrogant. They decided to adopt this insult as their own "theme" so that when they finally "Obliterated those wretched Bats" it would feel even more satisfying. They ordered Jester uniforms, but got Mosaic Jester outfits because the costume designer had spilled paint all over his only prototype. The next time the Jesters faced the Bats, the sides were more evenly matched.
At first the other two races of people were eager to go to war (although some scholars say that "war" was mistranslated, and meant "costume store" because they are of course the same word in the ancient crux language). But then, as they looked at the Jesters and the Bats, engaged in relentless combat time and time again, they started to question the purpose... and while these two peoples (who had spontaneously adopted the "Exploreian Bot" and "Bone Suit" as their uniforms) weren't the brightest or the most powerful of the four races, they were the only ones who thought "Wait, hold on.... What's the point here? Why are we doing this again?" so many scholars think they had all the common sense in the family.
This did not stop the war however. Generation after generation, conflict after conflict, The Bats and the Jesters fought until the original reasons for the war were lost in time and they simply did it because it was all they knew to do. The Bots and Bones waffled a bit, never really seeing the point. The Bones would team with the Bats, and the Bots with the Jesters, then they would switch, then they would go out on their own, etc. etc. etc.
The war raged, until one day, as mysteriously as it had all began, the war ended.
Some say it was because there was no one left to fight wars, that all the people were wiped out.
Some say that they finally resolved the conflict (which is the unlikeliest of all hypotheses)
And some say, the only way they would ever have stopped was if the first builders returned, and, horrified at what had happened to their creation, ended it. But perhaps not completely. Perhaps, they say, the first builders ended the wars and exiled the Bats, Bots, Bones, and Jesters to opposite corners of the universe, so that by the time they found each other, time would have made sure that no recollection of these wars would remain. Then they would be allowed to return to crux. And to their gift the builders had given.
700 generations passed.
Then, four explorers, one descended from each of the peoples of crux, finally found what their ancestors had sought so long.
They found the planet Crux.
And with it, they found the gift, the one given by the first builders to the ancient ancestors of the explorers.
They found the Imagination Nexus, the source of pure imagination.
This is not their story.
This is the story of the only oversight that the first builders had not purposefully made. When they exiled the inhabitants of crux, they completely forgot about the troublesome ones they had thrown of the side generations before, who had taken refuge on the stray asteroid that had by some uncanny timing been floating right underneath crux on the day they were thrown off.
They never expected them to return.
But they did.
This is their story
A job as an underground mercenary and bounty hunter may sound cool at first, but this stereotypical vision of a glorious life of epicness is rarely close to reality.
For one thing, thought the Major, waiting for your prey is on the list of the top ten most lethally boring activities. Not lethal for him, of course, but definitely so for the target, which had yet to arrive, even though it had been several hours since the designated time.
The Major, or MajorQ12, as he was also known, carefully peaked over his cover. This caution was unnecessary, since his cloaking systems were on, and he was a Ghost's shadow to anyone who looked, but he knew it was better to stay in the habit. Sure enough, his brief glance revealed exactly what it had revealed for the fast 48 hours: nothing. The Major was annoyed, which wasn't surprising considering the situation, but there was nothing to be done about that at the moment.
Well, at least the pay for this one is good; otherwise I would have had those people get this guy themselves. They're both going to have to answer for this one.
There are only two ways to capture prey, he knew. You could find them, or let them find you, and frankly, the Major much preferred the first of those options. Ambush had never been his style.
Still, a job's a job, even if this job required him to wait for the prey to come to him. Even if the conditions were dislikable, it was the first job he had been offered in months, so there was nothing he could do but accept it.
He looked down at his armor, able to see it through his unique HUD. He made a rare smile; everything about him was unique, armor, weapons, everything. Of course every piece he wore had once been part of the Nexus Force in some form or another, but that time had long since past. He hadn't actually stolen them; he had left what he thought was a fair amount of money (actually he left twice the normal cost of each piece) at Nimbus Station and Nexus Tower, where he had procured - he loved that word, procured - each one. As soon as he was back home (which was actually just his starship, since he was nomadic) he immediately begun modifying and combing them.
He was wearing his "Space Marine" outfit now; it was the ideal choice for this mission, formed from the Space Ranger and the Space Marauder kits. Of all the ones he had made, it was his favorite. It was a more of a silver-blue then the Ranger, with some of the more menacing features of the marauder. It was more powerful than either of them, and, in his opinion, more powerful than both put together (in the case of two minifigures working together). As with all his kits, he had removed the unnecessary, weaker components to make room for improving the better ones. He had modified a Wormholer so that it strapped to his back and he could hold it in one hand, so he had made one for each hand to hold. He wasn't using them tonight though; tonight he stuck to the basics, his emergency side arms, each one a combination formed from all four of the original one handed weapons, to maximize the potential of each. He often thought of himself as "Too dark to be a Ranger, too precise to be a Marauder, and too powerful to be either."
The fact that he was unique, however, didn't change the fact that he was growing impatient.
Man, this guy was due over 12 hours ago, either he is lazy, or something's gone wrong. After all the time he'd spent waiting, he was beginning to rethink his answer to his favorite question: "Dead or Alive"
And then something changed.
He froze. He tuned in to his surroundings. Yes... something was now in the area, something that wasn't there before. He peaked around his cover with his peripheral vision.
The Major, for the second time that night, made one of his rare smiles. The target had finally arrived. The Prey had entered the Predator's den.
It was time to hunt.
The Major watched the prey carefully sneak around every maelstrom enemy he saw. Coward, he thought, I am going to enjoy this more than I first realized.
The Major knew that once the target reached its destination, which happened to be Sentinel Point Zeta, that he would have mere seconds to dash over and snag him. The instructions were very specific: the prey must be caught red-handed. Of course, this made the Major's position, a good distance from Point Zeta, seem inadequate, but the outcropping he was in provided the most cover in case things went wrong.
Of course they never did.
The Major stood up to check that his cloaking device was getting the maximum power. It was. He loved all his various invisibility devices, but this one was his favorite. And often the most powerful.
He had based it on the principal that people in general will see either what they expect or what they want to see. A little mind/senses disruption transmitted over as far as two kilometers, and their wish came true. They would always see what they expected to see.
And they never expected to see HIM.
Especially not any rank 1 recruit that he just happened to be hunting.
They're getting braver, gotta give'm that much. You used to never see anyone below rank 3 on Crux Prime.
The Major did a basic systems check, which was fortunate, because something he had counting on having had broken. His homemade Xpresso - IV had malfunctioned, and he had counted on it to get him across to Point Zeta in the time it took his target to blink. Now he would have to start running early.
He looked across the landscape. As in, now. He's almost at Point Zeta, and I've still got a couple hundred yards to cross.
He started running. He watched the prey enter the ten-meter defense zone surrounding Point Zeta: the prey was ten meters from his trap.
I think I'll demand an extension fee for this hunt, it's been that annoying.
He watched the prey
The Major felt the sweet rush of adrenaline
He focused on the job, and silently recited his rules...
"It doesn't matter what the target's story is, once turned prey, always preyed upon until dead."
"Be loyal to the contract, know not any vendettas."
"And most important of all-"
0 meters. The Prey was entering the net...
"-NEVER know anything but perfection when working."
The target opened the mailbox a split second before The Major jumped him, literally. He leaped, grabbed the target in mid leap, and threw them both to the ground. They briefly rolled across the hard rocks before the Major immobilized the target. Then came the Major's favorite part.
Major: "MassiveCuddleyGoof, you have been caught in the act-"
Goof: "WHAT THE CRUX???"
Major: "-of tampering with other people's mail; "
Goof: "They couldn't have sent YOU!!!"
Major: "You have the right-"
Goof: "They wouldn't!"
Major: "-to remain silent."
Goof: "They couldn't!"
Major: "if you choose-"
Goof: "WHY ME???"
Major: "-to neglect-"
Goof: "MERCY, PLEASE!!!"
Major: "-this right-"
Goof: "WHY YOU-"
Major: "-it will-"
Major: "-be actively-"
Goof: "-PIECE OF-"
...The target said no more, because having one's head shot off at point blank range does affect one's ability to articulate words very skillfully.
It was only after the prey was deceased that the Major began to converse with him, which was his own little way of coping with how little he was being paid to take care of such an annoying guy.
".... Hoping that you will put me back on the map.... know that that you were my first job in months? Of course I was going to ask which you preferred, but once you started yelling, I decided 'Dead' would be better for my health than 'Alive'...."
For some reason, the dead always had more appeal to him than the living.
When The Major finally reached his ship, which he had left hidden safely in Aura Mar, after he deposited the body in its respective compartment, he listened to a message someone had left, thinking it would be from his client for the current job, demanding to know what was taking so long.
But it wasn't.
It was from who he thought would be the fourth least likely of anyone to contact him.
After considering this unexpected message for some time, The Major sighed, and set a course for his next destination.
It had been a long time since he had set foot in Nexus Tower.
The Major landed his ship on the designated platform. It was a secret platform, according to the message.
Either things are getting really bad for the Nexus Force, or they've gotten tired of me and this is a trap. I will assume both.
His logic behind both was that they had never really gotten along after his last visit. Even though he DID leave a fair price.
He looked around. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. But that didn't mean he wouldn't be using caution.
He entered Nexus Tower. A few guards tried to stop him, but they only delayed him for about 3.8 seconds. The Major kicked them aside; he hated bad timekeeping. He calmly strode down the hall, and into the designated meeting room.
He was surprised to find that this wasn't a trap, and that his new client was actually there. And that as promised, she was alone.
"Vanda" The Major said, without any trace of emotion in his voice. Without any trace anything, really. He was using his "client-negotiating-voice": flat, cool, and uncaring for the world.
"Major" she replied. She seemed a bit unnerved that he was wearing his Buccaneer/Samurai 'Ninja-elimination outfit'. Which was the intended effect. "We have a job for you. Two, actually."
The Major said the first thing that came to mind, which surprised him: "Then things must be twice as bad as I figured."
Vanda briefly raised one eyebrow, and then replied, "The jobs are connected. How you respond to one will affect the other."
"I can't wait," the Major said. Again, he hadn't taken enough care in not saying what he was thinking. He made a mental note that he was out of practice since it had been over three months.
Vanda, who had nearly forgotten who she was talking to, inquired, "Are you usually this sarcastic?"
"Only when my client is from the Nexus Force." was his reply. He was actually almost never sarcastic, especially when talking to a client, but it was a good enough excuse. In reality, he actually was interested in seeing what it was that would make anyone from Nexus Force proper want HIM.
Vanda rolled her eyes (when she thought he couldn't see her), and then turned around to punch an access code into a security panel. A security door opened in front of them. "Are you familiar with the origin story of Crux?" she said between these actions.
The Major's heart raced, as well as his thoughts. Surely she couldn't know? It was impossible.
When he realized Vanda was looking at him, and that he had been totally silent for several seconds, he quickly replied, "I know the story."
Vanda shrugged, and then led him through the door she had opened. It was pitch black once she closed it. She flicked a switch. 'Well, we have reason to believe that it's more than just a story. Here's something that was recently recovered from Crux Prime."
Inside, the Major gasp. He was looking at an outfit unlike any he had ever seen. The armor was red, with black markings and a black helmet. It also had a powerful staff and a fearsome shield.
Yes, there was no doubt about it. He was looking at a preserved piece of Bat Lord armor.
"Do you know the significance of this?" Vanda asked.
'More than you know' was what he thought, but fortunately, "Yes" was all he said. Good to know he hadn't completely lost control of his thoughts.
"Then this is your assignment: We want you to go back in time to when this artifact has been dated at. We want information. We want weapon samples. And we want the details of what really happened."
"In other words, I'm your guinea pig." the Major coldly replied. He did NOT like jobs where he had to go in without adequate info. Not that that ever bothered his clients.
"We will pay you handsomely. Just take this sample," she pointed at the Bat Lord equipment, "and go find Wenn Wuzzit on Nimbus Station. Tell him I sent you. He'll take care of the rest."
The Major did NOT like this idea. But a job's a job, so the details shouldn't really matter. At least that was what he figured until Vanda told him the rest.
"We will be sending you back accompanied by a team of Nexus Force Agents. You will have a rank 3 Daredevil, Samurai, and Engineer at your disposal." she said.
"NO." the Major (who was getting more annoyed by the minute) asserted. "I work alone"
"We understand this will be new for you," Vanda said, obviously more calmly then she actually felt, "But it is necessary. We want you accompanied so we can monitor your progress."
"A.k.a.: You don't trust me." the Major said, in a very annoyed tone.
Vanda apparently had been expecting this reaction "Would you?"
"No," was all the Major could say. But that didn't mean Vanda would get the last word, "But it's still outrageous."
Vanda ignored him, instead continuing: "In return for your services..."
They had better be generous....
"...You will receive two million in cash, as well as amnesty for when you stole Nexus Force equipment."
For a second, the Major thought he had heard her wrong. 'TWO MILLION?' he thought. 'That could make me for life, but...'
There was still one more thing.
"I BOUGHT the gear you are referring to," the major said. "And for twice what they normally sell as well."
Vanda looked taken aback, like she hadn't known this fact. But she answered, "Either way, they were NOT for sale. Nexus Force gear is exclusive to Nexus Force."
"And yet you don't give it to your members, you make them pay. Not how I would run a war."
Vanda looked as if she agreed, but she just said, "Our reasons for why we do this are classified information."
"Which means you don't know them either." the Major said, in his 'I'm-just-gonna-stand-here-and-tell-you-what-I-know-that-you-don't-want-me-to-know' voice. He had long since stopped caring what she thought about his attitude. If Nexus Force needed him at all, it meant that they needed him badly, and that no one else was capable. So there was no reason for him to make an effort to be on their good side. Instead, they were the ones who needed to stay on his.
Vanda was obviously irritated, but did not reply to what he said. Apparently she had recited this conversation very well. "Is there anything else you need?" she asked in a hurried voice, eager to get the meeting over with.
"Will the money I left be returned in addition to the two million and the amnesty?" he asked.
The Major turned to leave, but Vanda stopped him. "How much was it?" she asked him, obviously desperate.
The Major told her. Vanda looked pale.
"Fine," she surrendered. "But for that price, you will also be going with a rank 3 Shinobi on your team." The Major considered this, but then decided that having four people wouldn't be much worse than having three.
"Deal," he said. "But one more thing..."
Vanda sighed, and judging from this sigh, she had already surrendered to giving whatever the Major desired. Which suited him just fine.
"Do the other Faction Leaders know about this?" the Major asked.
"They do now." Came a voice from behind. The Major turned to look…
The other three faction leaders stood in the doorway.
It was turning out to be such a lovely afternoon.
Vanda jumped right in. "Duke," she said, "listen to me just this once-"
But Duke just shook his head. "No." he said, "You have gone too far this time. We gave you the artifacts because you said they might be infected, you never said anything about hiring this... bounty hunter." He said the last part with a hint of disgust in his voice. "Let alone sending A.N.C. recruits with him."
The Major looked from Vanda, to Duke, to Hael, to Overbuild. He was pretty he could take out the three of them. Maybe all four, if Vanda sided with them. But he didn't want to test that theory anytime soon.
Vanda, however, would not give up. "You know that this could be our chance to turn the tides. We need to do this, it's the only way."
But Duke was just as stubborn. "None of us ever approved this plan. It was never even discussed. Vanda, you have lost what trust I had in you."
THAT got Vanda's attention. Apparently this had been building up for some time. "I don't care!" she exclaimed, "I will go through with this plan. And when it works, I will look at you and laaa-augh!"
This just seemed to get Duke even madder. "VANDA, THIS HAS GONE FAR ENOUGH!!!" Apparently the Major had been all but forgotten. "THIS PROJECT IS DONE!!!!"
Up until this point the other two faction leaders, who were standing behind Duke, had not spoken. As soon as Duke started yelling, Overbuild put one of his mechanical arms around Duke in an attempt to calm him down, but Duke shrugged him off. This pause was, however, enough for the Major to speak up. "I would have thought that you would have liked this plan," he said. "You're basically hitting two birds with one stone."
Duke wheeled around to face the Major. "Leave now," he said, "or I'll have you thrown out. And you won't be using the elevator."
This didn't deter the Major at all. He simply replied, "I don't doubt that you would TRY." But Duke was not intimidated either.
"Vanda, I don't know what drove you to mixing with this thieving Bounty-hunter scum. But I probably don't want to." he said, without letting his gaze leave the Major.
The Major was getting annoyed. Up until this point he had found the prospect of a front seat to a faction leader quarrel somewhat amusing. But enough was enough. "I BOUGHT those items." He said, "With my entire family fortune."
"I wouldn't have thought that you ever had a family." Duke sneered. "You always seemed too uncivilized."
"Funny thing, that: I probably would have ended up a rather nice guy if the Nexus Force hadn't slaughtered my parents in front of my face." The Major sneered back. But unlike Duke, he meant it.
Duke was taken aback, as if this had never occurred to him. "Then why are you even here, instead of plotting your revenge?" he countered.
The taunts had no effect. "I came here because payback doesn't pay. A job's a job. And this one looked promising."
Duke decided that it was time to draw the line. "Well, now you're out of one. Sorry Vanda, but it's three to one against you." He pointed back at the other two leaders behind him.
"Actually..." began Overbuild. And then he and Hael slowly walked over to Vanda, and then stood behind her. "I think you're wrong on that account, Duke. We approve of this plan. I actually do believe it might work."
Inside, the Major smiled. His team had almost won. But Duke wasn't about to let them have the last word.
"It doesn't take a genius like you to see that this is a fool's errand," he began, "but since it appears I stand alone, I must say this: In any war, there are shatter points. Targets that will break an entire defense. And I see one in this plan. Either this will be our Achilles' heel, or the Maelstrom's. So I will accept this plan, but know that I still believe that this will turn out to be the movement that cripples us, and I will blame you if I end up being right."
He said no more, and left the room once he was done. Hael and Overbuild tried to get him to stay, but they couldn't, so instead they decided to follow him to try and calm him down.
Once they were gone, the Major had a few more questions for Vanda. He thus learned that A.N.C. stood for Advanced Nexus Commandos, and that it was a special operations branch of Nexus Force. He also learned that he would be communicating with the present, through a special HUD that would record his progress indefinitely, so that they could watch him in the present time. He learned that once he went back, he would be able to talk to them, but they would have no way of communicating back. He would be on his own.
"Which is why it's so important that you have backup with you." she said, "We have no idea what you will be up against and we won't be able to help you once you're there. When we have enough data, just say the word, and we'll pull you back. But we can only do this once, so make it count."
She had told them the reason for this was that Wenn Wuzzit's time machine would probably burn out after they were pulled back. Powerful as it was, all power had its limits, and a two-way 700-generation leap was really pushing it as it was.
But there was one more thing the Major needed to know.
"What was the second job you had for me?" he asked.
"That," the Paradox Leader said, "Is for after you come back from this one, ok?" She didn't sound very hopeful when she said it though. Perhaps this conversation had changed her mind about the second job? Probably.
He also learned that while he was there, as much as circumstances allowed, he would smear anything important he found with a special gel that would preserve it so the Nexus Force archaeologists would be able to dig it up again on Crux Prime.
In theory, this was a well thought out mission. But in execution, he doubted it would run as smoothly as Vanda made it sound.
Then it seemed Vanda thought it was her turn to make inquiries. "Did you mean what you said about your family?" she asked.
The Major was stunned. No one had ever seemed to care. But then again, no one had ever known. His vision started to blur, but he quickly shook off the feeling. 'No time to dwell on it now' he though.
"Yeah," he eventually replied. "Like you care."
Vanda seemed hurt, but then smiled and replied, "I hated the other faction leaders for a long time, because they abandoned my mentor, Baron Typhonus. It really did seem like they didn't care either, but know I understand that they did. It just takes time."
Time. It was something the Major thought was never on his side, even when it was. Now, it seemed as opposed to him as ever. But who could blame it? he thought, I'm about to meddle with it more than ever.
He had all the answers he needed. He took the Bat Gear, said farewell to his client, and headed back to his ship. He set a course for Nimbus Station once he got there.
This was going to be a tough job.
The Major woke up with a start. Then he relaxed when he realized that the bleeping noise he heard was only the ship informing him that they were entering Nimbus Station's orbit. The Major went back, and tried to find the plan he had formed while sleeping. When he found it, he reviewed and checked over it before he decided that it was acceptable given the circumstances. But there did seem to be one tiny detail out of place, like he had forgotten something critical.
As he started the manual phase of landing his ship, it finally occurred to him what he had forgotten. Oh yeah, he thought, I'll have some incompetents slowing me down on this mission.
The Major cursed, he had forgotten all about for the whole duration of the trip. He decided to stash the plan he had formed away in some corner of his mind until he might find it usable again.
The Major sighed; at least some of the trip to Nimbus hadn't been wasted. He had spent the first 15 minutes examining, disassembling, and rearranging the new HUD, the one he was specifically given for this mission which supposedly would relay/record what he saw/heard for HQ to view at their leisure. Now that he had modified it, it looked more or less like his old one, with the exception that he could now communicate with teammates as well as see first person views of their HUDs. He had also managed to give the relay/record/whatever an OFF switch, so that whenever he wanted he could break from filming their Friday night movie and have the privacy that HQ was unkind enough not to provide. He also separated the visual and audio feeds, so that he could turn off each one individually (he did this mainly so that he would have the pleasure of pushing all the wrong buttons of whoever had the misfortune of reviewing the tape; Since HQ would have no choice but to believe whatever fake audio he provided while the visual was out, he intended to provide them with more than a few not quite authentic narrations. Oh this was going to be fun!)
But he also had another reason as well. He was sworn to protect his family secret, at all costs. If this meant keeping his clients in the dark - or in the silence, as the case may be - then so be it. He didn't think he would find anything that might jeopardize the secret, but better safe than sorry.
The Major looked up to look out the front viewports. It was time for him to land. He gently lowered his ship down in the forest surrounding the Forbidden Valley launch pad. State of the art cloaking device or not, if someone were to accidentally walk into it, it would more than likely be discovered.
He prepared to leave his ship, the only place he called home, for a long time. He packed a selection of his favorite Fusion-Kits, a medium-supply of consumables (most of which, like the kits, were of his own design: with some he could fully restore any one meter, depending on which one he chose to use), and some other items that might be useful, such as a spare MKIII and Crux Prime Armor. He only planned on using these to either convert to local currency or bribe someone if necessary. After considering the first of those a second time, he also packed a couple more rare items (but nothing like a Flogmore's Cap or a Maelstrom-infused ninja hood, since they might alter the time-stream by creating another Maelstrom in the past). After reviewing what he had, he decided that, since he still had room, to pack a few more consumables. There, he was done. He gave one last long look at the ship's interior that was all he had for a home then turned forward, and headed out.
For some reason, The Major had a sense of foreboding about this mission.
Meanwhile, in Nimbus Station Plaza, four minifigs were getting tired of waiting.
"Where is he?" the first one said, "Do you think he's running late or something?"
The second one, an Engineer, turned to the first and said, "I think that your kit has you on a permanent speed boost. He isn't late; it just isn't time yet. We still have a few minutes."
The first was going to reply, but the third one spoke first, "Yeah, why is it that all you Daredevils are so impatient? I'd almost say you were in a hurry to meet him."
The first one to speak grumbled an inaudible retort, then resumed his way of making the time pass, which was figuring out what he would say when he finally arrived. So far, he had nothing. Well how do you greet a homicidal mercenary that you'll be working with for who knows how long?
He looked at his watch, which was a stupid thing to do, seeing as it was fast. He was growing more impatient. The sooner they met him and got this mission over with, the sooner they could part ways.
The Major stood on the cliff with the Forbidden Valley launch pad, and looked down on Nimbus Plaza. He was once again wearing his Space Marine outfit; it was, after all, the one he was infamous for. He looked back; his timing was perfect. The sun was setting in the distance behind him, so that would make his entrance more intimidating. Heck, why not put on a show?
And with that, the Major got ready to jump.
It was almost time, and the four minifigs now looked anxiously at the crowd surrounding them.
"Do you think he might be in disguise?" the Daredevil said, "For all we know he could be sneaking up on us through this crowd!"
"Nah, that's not his style," the Shinobi replied, "He'd want to make his first impression lasting."
"If he IS spying on us, do you think he appreciates your childish banter?" the Engineer said, since he certainly didn't. But this didn't stop the Shinobi from arguing back.
While the Engineer and Shinobi began another one of their endless arguments, the Daredevil noticed the tugging at his sleeve. It was Jonathon. The Daredevil sighed, even though he knew that their Samurai had had some terrible experiences, the fact that he never talked to anyone was still annoying. But it made him feel heartless to think like this.
"What is it?" the Daredevil asked the Samurai. All the Samurai did was point. The Daredevil turned to look where he was pointing.
The sight sent a chill up his spine. A shadow was descending to the Plaza from above.
"Guys," he said, "I think we don't need to worry about that anymore." He indicated to where the shadow was.
The others turned to look, just in time to see the shadow swoop in, and land right in front of them.
Once they realized who had just appeared in their midst, the people in the crowd tried ran in a panic. When the Major had descended using his Jetpack, he created such terror that the whole crowd was desperately trying to get away. All except four minifigs: from left to right they were a Samurai, Daredevil, Engineer, and Shinobi. But he already knew they were his contacts simply from the observation that they didn't run.
The Engineer stepped forward and saluted the Major. "Nexus Force Lt. Praxer reporting for duty, sir!" he proclaimed.
The Major was about to reply, but the Shinobi spoke first. "I had no idea you had already gotten that promotion, Prax," she said, "I thought they awarded them AFTER a successful mission."
Praxer turned and stared daggers at the Shinobi. "Shut up, Reyna." he grumbled. But when he turned back, the Major was staring daggers at HIM. If this guy is going to be like this, he had better be a seasoned veteran, thought the Major.
"Buckets off, all of you." he said, without breaking his stare.
"What?" Praxer looked confused.
"The Helmets. Take them off." the Major clarified.
Obediently, all four of the minifigs removed their helmets.
Holy Nexus! Their just kids! thought the Major.
He kept his outward shock at a minimum though. "How old are you?" he asked the Engineer.
"18, sir," the Engineer stated.
Oh Crux, this isn't good. I've been set up! When I get my hands on that Mrs. Darkflame… The Major put away that thought, and returned to the dilemma: Prax was obviously the oldest one in the group, and the Major had expected seasoned warriors for his team.
The Major looked at each one. The Shinobi, Reyna, if he had heard right, looked slightly younger than Prax, about 17 or so. The Daredevil looked about sixteen, and in his prime. And the Samurai....
Holy Crux, he can't be older than 12!!! Was the result of the Major's first observation. Then he made another one. The Major looked into the boy's eyes, and saw something there that he loathed. This kid had seen things no child should ever be allowed to see, had had experiences no one that young should have to experience. Just like you, he realized, You were forced into this life as a kid, remember?
The Major shook away those thoughts, since they would only distract him on this mission. "Give me a role call." he finally said.
"Andrew! But you may call me Axolc."
The Major waited for the young Samurai to call out his name. When he didn't, the Major got worried. He walked over to him.
"What's your name?" he asked as gently as he could. Which isn't saying much.
The others shot nervous glances at each other before Reyna spoke up, "His name's Jonathon. He's my brother, and he doesn't talk."
Crux, Crux, CRUX! The Major was cursing more violently by the moment.
"Are you all ready to leave?" he finally asked.
"Yes," all of them in unison. Well, all of the ones who could talk that is; John just nodded his head.
The Major nodded. "Then let's go."
As they headed over to Wenn Wuzzit by the Avant Gardens launch pad, the Major noticed something about the Engineer, Praxer. There was something different about the glance he stole at the Major when the Major's back was turned. What could it be? The Major listed the possibilities in his mind:
Excessive Fear: no, they all had that, it was only natural
Excessive Hate: possibly, though he couldn't figure any reason why Praxer would hate him more than they usually do.
Foreign-atmosphere: completely normal; The Major had always seemed foreign to the Nexus Force
Then he realized what it was: a combination of the three. Praxer was xenophobic. He made a mental note of that right as they reached their destination.
"Wenn Wuzzit?" said the Major, a bit impatiently.
"Yes, what can I have done - sorry I mean what could I be doin- hold on...That's it! What can I do for you?"
The Major looked at the speaker. He was covered in various types of watches, and wore a totally insane-looking hat with a clock in it. He was pacing back and worth, and he leaned back to stare at the sky. He often put his hands up to his head, all of which gave the impression that he was distraught. The Major got the feeling that this was not uncommon for him. All in all, Wenn Wuzzit was the goofiest looking person the Major had ever laid eyes on, except perhaps that one time he had been hired to find Cringe Lo. THAT had not been fun.
"I believe you've been expecting me," the Major said.
Wenn Wuzzit finally stopped pacing and turned to look at the Major. "Oh, it's you," he said, "They told me you would be coming. Everything's ready, just hop into the portal. We've already closed off the Battle of Nimbus Station for you so just hop in and Wah-La! You'll be in the past. Or will you have been? Or were you already being? Oh, my..." And he resumed his distraught pacing.
The Major sighed, they better get this over with. He walked up to the portal, and beckoned his team to follow. He looked back one last time, and then he jumped in.
For a few seconds the rest of his team was speechless.
Then, out of the blue, Prax said, "You know we could just leave and no one would no where we had gone. It's not like he would be able to find us where he is now."
But the Daredevil, Axolc, just shook his head and replied, "Oh, come on! Where's your sense of adventure?!" and he leapt through the portal, leaving the others no choice but to follow.
When the Major regained consciousness, he found himself in a place like none he had ever even heard of before, and seemingly miles from nowhere. What was he doing here? <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> Then he remembered: he was in the past. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> With a slight groan, he got up to observe his surroundings. The first thing he noticed was that, from where he stood, the sky was a dark purple/blue blend. Which probably meant it was nighttime. Next, he let his gaze drop fall onto some mountain peaks to the - was it the north? It was impossible to tell. He shrugged, and continued to methodically lower his gaze, moving towards ground level. He realized that he was in a very craggy area, which could be described as a relatively shallow canyon that looked like some variation of Crux Prime or Forbidden Valley. But it wasn't an identical scene by far. For one thing, it seemed like the ground really was solid ground, and the rocks were blackish-brown instead of grey or purple. Even so, he reminded himself that anywhere he walked would become part of a planet he'd traveled before, in the future (or however you say it; unlike certain lunatics, the Major didn't care). He would have to look for similarities in the terrain and geological formations, and let these compensate for differences. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> Then he turned his eyes towards the ground, and finally noticed the four bodies lying prone on the ground. "Poor kids," he thought, "They'll be out for a lot longer. They're not used to this sort of stress."
Then the Major realized what he had just thought. "POOR KIDS??? You CANNOT think like that, Major, for YOUR OWN sake!"
He knew he couldn't to let himself get attached to these kids. They were, after all, Nexus Force commandos, even if they were a bit underage. And besides that, the Major knew what happened when one gets too attached; it never ended well. So he resolved not to do anything that might rip open wounds, old or new. He was NOT about to go soft. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> Then for the first time, the Major noticed something around him that he hadn't because his first thought had been the kids. He had come through in the middle of a small encampment, comprised of two beige tents and a dangerously unmanned campfire between them. Normally, he would have either checked out the tents or crept away into the distance before anyone noticed. But he now had the kids to worry about. "And I've also got to find a less personal name for them. If I keep calling them 'the kids', I'll inevitably get attached. I need a way to deny what they really are and yet still be able to believe the denial. And not just name-wise."
He thought about this, but then decided he would come up with something later, since lo and behold, his protégés were starting to wake. First Reyna, then the Daredevil, and finally Praxer started to get up with a groan. Jonathon had not yet awakened. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> They started greeting each other before they were even completely awake. Once they all had come to grips (with none too much help from some of the Major's Xpressos) they began looking around cautiously, but once they had counted themselves, they appeared very alarmed. Reyna especially looked worried. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> It didn't take them long to find their missing member though. As soon as they saw John lying on the ground, Reyna rushed over and tried to wake him. So far, it wasn't working.
"John... JOHN! Come on, wake up! WAKE UP! PLEASE WAKE UP!!!" Reyna looked like she was on the brink of tears. Jonathon however showed no signs of life. 'And if the stress had been enough to knock all five of them out cold...' <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> The Major cursed; he had to do something. He didn't want to admit to himself that it was because he cared, so he told himself that if John went now, who knew what the grief would do to Reyna? <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> He pulled a vial out of his pack and got up. He calmly strode over to Jonathon, and pushed Reyna aside before she could object. He positioned the boy's head on his knee, and then thrust the vial to the boy's mouth. The powerful liquids rushed in. Having seen every drop down the boy's throat, the Major straightened up from his hunched position, and waited. Three seconds later, he got a reaction. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> Jonathon started to cough. At first it was very weak, but gradually it became more forceful, and soon the boy was breathing again. In a moment he sat up, and gazed groggily at his surroundings. Judging from his expression, the Major guessed that the world had not yet come into focus for him. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> At that point, Reyna was so over stimulated that she tried to rush over and embrace brother, but the Major held her back. "Let him come to his senses first." he said. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> Jonathon turned to where he heard the voice, and it must have been that moment that the world came into focus, because his eyes suddenly widened and he started to slowly back away from the Major. He went slowly because he was almost completely frozen with fear. He gave Major a look of terror that unnerved everyone, including the Major. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "He's awake. You may go." the Major said as he released his grip on Reyna. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> Like a mad rabbit, she rushed to John's side to comfort him. Soon he was back to normal, but in the Major's books, that still was not good condition.
"He really does have that paranoid look, like at any moment something could jump out of nowhere and grab him. He's only twelve, it's just wrong. It's inhuman, whoever did this to him. And I want to know what."
The Major didn't have time to correct his own thoughts, because right at that moment, there was the sound of a flap opening, and the Major turned just in time to see the source of it crawl out of his tent. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt; line-height: normal;">
"Well, hewo der gud strangers. Where yus from?" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal">The speaker, who had just stood up after exiting the tent, was an old guy with a cane. If his attire was to be trusted, he was evidently a member of the bone tribe. The Major looked warily at him. He didn't appear trustworthy, and the Major trusted no one to begin with.
"Where yus from?" the Bone guy repeated, "Dusn't yus understand mees language?" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "Oh! Uh, we understand, and we're not from anywhere in particular, Mr. ...uh" The Major was stuttering. 'Nexus!' He was not himself right now. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> But this didn't seem to bother the Bone.
"Heeh, Heeh, Heeh!" the Bone laughed in a raspy voice, "Yus, gud strangers, yus may calls me UNCLE THOKI!"
Axolc smiled, "Pleased to meet you, Thoki," he said, "Is it alright if we just call you Thoki?" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "Dat wurks tu." Thoki replied, "Now what can Thoki dus for yus un dis fine murning?"
The Major decided that the accent must be fake, because it was inconsistant. But he decided to bide his time. "Can you tell us how far it is to the nearest village?" he asked. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "Of corse good sirs, I wus just hedding der now, with my wares."
"Your 'Wares'?" the Major eyed him suspiciously. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "Thoki sells used wepuns and armors. Yus want tu see? Der in de wagun-cart thingies behinds me." he pointed back behind him without turning around.
The Major looked over the Bone's shoulder. "What wagon?" he asked. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "What dus yus mean? It's rite der-" he turned "OH NOES!!! Thoki haz bin ROBBED!!!!"
"Well then, let's go catch whoever stole it!" Axolc said, obviously eager for battle. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "Wud yus? Cud yus? OH, THANK YUS!! Thoki cud HUGS yus!!"
"No you won't. And we will find the thieves," The Major decided that it would be a good opportunity to check out the kids in combat. "But you'll owe us a favor." <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> "Thoki wud du anydings!! Wat's in dat waguns es Thoki's life!!"
"Okay then," the Major said, "Let's move out!!" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height: normal"> So he and his team did.
As they were walking down the canyon, Axolc thought back. During the conversation Axolc had noticed how Prax and Reyna had looked at Thoki with disgust. He didn't see why his friends were so negative towards non-members of the Nexus Force. They were people too, even if sometimes they did talk a little funny. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> He didn't have time to berate them for being rude, however, before Reyna had asked the question they had all been wondering.
"Sir, what was it you gave Jon that woke him up?" she asked the Major. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> "A powerful healing potion of my own design. It can bring anyone back to their maximum strength, even when they're on death's door."
Reyna looked puzzled, "Then why didn't you use it on the rest of us?" she asked. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> "Because it takes an entire vial, and they're reserved for emergencies. The potion costs a lot to make, and I only have four." The Major sounded rather impatient.
"Then why-" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> "BECAUSE I need you at maximum efficiency or you will slow me down even more than you already are!! And I doubt Vanda will be very eager to pay if you guys wind up dead. She doesn't seem eager to pay as it is!!" the Major definitely was getting impatient
Then Prax spoke up, "I have a question," he said, "Why are we helping that underling? We're just wasting time."
"No, it's a good question." The Major stopped Reyna short of arguing till the end of time. "First reason: He'll owe us a favor, and I can use that." <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> "We don't need his help."
"Don't interrupt. We may not NEED his help, but it will make things easier seeing as we don't know the lay of the land." By now the Major was staring pointedly at Praxer. "Second reason: I am actually interested in seeing what he sells, and whether it is legit, although it probably isn't. Third reason: WE will not be stopping the thieves, YOU will. I want to check out your form."
At this, Axolc shuddered. It had been a while since he had practiced, so he was afraid of what the Major might do to him if he messed up. He looked around, and noticed that the others felt the same way. Luckily, the Major didn't notice, or if he did, he didn't care. <p class="MsoNormal"> <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">By the time they reached their destination, the Major had almost gone deaf. The kids had pestered him with questions the entire walk. He was more than eager to get this over with. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> The tracks left by the cart had led them through a secret pass in the crags, into a series of hilly green fields. Since then, there hadn't been any road, so the Major was taking notes on every landmark he saw. Which was nothing. The hills were that empty. They'd just have to hope that the tracks wouldn't disappear before they got back to the road.
"Okay, there's your target." He said, pointing at a cart in a patch of tall grass that lay below them. "Now go get it. I will watch you so I can get an idea of how you operate."
The kids looked nervously at each other, then huddled together to discuss their plan. When they were done, the Major watched them head into the tall grass.
Then came the interesting part. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt;">
The four kids split up when they were halfway down the hill. Axolc and Jon diverged to the left and right, while Reyna and Prax continued walking straight towards the cart. So far, so good. They hadn't been seen by the bandits yet. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">The bandits wore identical blue shirts and black trousers, and none of them were wearing headgear. Two of them stood watch while a third was rummaging through the cart's load, which even from a distance was obviously too much for the poor cart. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">However, from Axolc's observations it seemed that the two on watch must have been pretty bored, because they were almost falling asleep and by the looks of it not taking their job very seriously. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">Axolc also noticed that the tall grass ended before they reached the cart, which meant that Reyna and Praxer would have to act their part all the more convincingly. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">The two of them casually strolled out of the tall grass and out into the open. The two guards bolted upright, and marched over to interrogate them. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Axolc only caught snippets of the dialogue as he snuck around to the other side of the cart, but he figured it was something like: <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">"Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"Hello, my boyfriend and I were wondering if you could tell us how to get out of these hills? We snuck here to get married but now we're lost and we can't even find the preacher."
"Why would you have to sneak away for that? And where exactly are you from?"
"Our families back home are having a feud, and we'd never gain their consent."
"But where exactly are you from? Are you from the Bot Village? You don't look like Exploreian Bots."
"Yes, we grew up in the Bot Village, even though we aren't Exploreians ourselves."
...and that was as far as they got. The guard suddenly grabbed Reyna, and shouted something about spies and yester. Did he mean yesterday? It was hard to tell. Whatever he said, one thing was clear: their cover was blown. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Axolc leapt from his hiding spot along the left side of the cart, and jumped the one who had been rummaging through the stolen loot. He clobbered the bandit on the head with one of his Flareguns, while he fired the other at the one holding Reyna. But his aim wasn't near good enough, and the bandits easily dodged. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Axolc heard a sound, and turned his head just in time to see Jon leap up from the other side of the cart and tackle the bandit Axolc had just stunned. As Jon engaged the thief in melee combat, Axolc turned back to watch the others. They weren't doing well. One Bandit was wrestling Prax sumo-style, and winning, while the other had Reyna pinned to the ground face down. Axolc charged in, firing his Flareguns all the way. The bandit holding Reyna turned just in time to feel Axolc boot in his face. The kick momentarily stunned him, which was enough of an opening for Reyna to kick her legs back and send the bandit flying off her. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Axolc and Reyna both turned to see Praxer fly straight into edge of the cart with a crash. They were about to rush to his aid, when the one who had attacked Reyna grabbed them both and slammed them into the ground, face-first. He held both of their heads down while his companion went and grabbed Prax by the shirt, and threw him over to join them. Once all three of them had been immobilized by the first bandit, the one who had thrown Praxer went into the cart and retrieved the first blade he could find, a scythe. He hurried over to them, and beckoned his partner to stand aside. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> But his partner didn't move. Instead he started arguing, saying that he should have brought a rope so they could bound and interrogate the spying kids before they killed them. His companion yelled back that they were too dangerous and that he was the leader so he decided what they would do. The first argued that they were equal in rank, and soon the conflict arose into a full-fledged argument. You would think that the one holding them down would have found this at least somewhat distracting, but no, he kept the three kids pinned helplessly on the ground. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> That was when Jon reappeared. He shot the scythe out of the executioner's hand with his bow, and followed up with a Samurai flying kick that sent the one he had hit flying. The first bandit got up to try and grab him, but Jon defended himself easily, and then went on the offensive, driving the bandit back with his katana. Annoyed, the bandit grabbed the fallen scythe, and began to counter Jon's attacks with his own. But unlike the bandit, Jon had not forgotten the three bodies face-down on the ground. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Reyna was up in a shot when she realized she was free, and just as quickly she charged at the remaining bandit. The bandit turned, and was extremely surprised to see the little girl he thought he had subdued charge at him with two lethally sharp curved blades. He was even more startled when she actually used them. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> SSSHHRINNKK
It was him or them, but that didn't make it feel better. Especially not Reyna, who was more than aware of Jon staring at her. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Exhausted, Reyna plopped down on the ground. Had she really just done that? Yes, she had, there was no doubt. She hung her head low and she started to cry. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> She felt the touch of someone trying to comfort her and looked up. It was Jon. He sat down next to her and tried to comfort her. Their roles had switched. Now she was the one distressed and he was the one trying to calm her down. It felt strange, but also soothing in a way. She knew he would always be there, to comfort or be comforted. It calmed her down, and also gave her a warm sense of security. She felt at peace. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Axolc, meanwhile, was helping Praxer up out of the mud. When he glanced over and saw Reyna sobbing with Jon at her side, he knew to stay out of it. He brushed himself off, and looked around. No sign of anyone else around. He walked over to peer into the cart. The third bandit was nowhere to be found. He looked down. Ahh, so that's how Jon did it. Axolc saw the third bandit had been buried underneath an avalanche of armor and weapons that had somehow slid off the open end of the cart. Axolc beckoned Praxer to come over to see, but the engineer, tired and not really in the mood, rolled his eyes and trudged over half-heartedly.
"Looks like someone's been buried in a surplus of success," Axolc said. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Prax raised an eyebrow, "Is that the best pun you can come up with for this scenario? Cuz almost anything beats that."
Axolc sighed; sometimes Praxer could just be depressing. He was serious ALL the time!! No matter what Axolc would have said, Praxer still wouldn't have laughed, or even smiled. He had no sense of humor whatsoever. Axolc didn't know why he ever bothered trying to be humorous around him other than hoping that Prax would somehow change. And Praxer was a creature of habit, so much so that sometimes Axolc actually considered the possibility that Prax didn't believe change existed. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> But Axolc was cheery anyways, whether for Praxer's benefit or for team moral in general.
"You know," Prax said, and Axolc turned to face him. He was still staring at the buried bandit. "This all seems so.... anticlimactic. I'd almost say it was too eas-"
He never finished his sentence, because he was interrupted by the sound of someone struggling. He wheeled around to see the second bandit dragging Axolc in front of him by the neck. He held a knife to the Daredevil's throat.
"One move and he dies." was all the bandit said. It was all he needed to. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Praxer looked out of the corner of his eyes. Reyna and Jon thankfully had seen the knife, and weren't trying to do anything except stare at the bandit. The bandit stared back.
"I want to know who you are, and who sent you." he said, "You're obviously not-" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> There was the sound of a weapon discharging behind him. His expression froze, and he slumped down, releasing Axolc and the knife. He lay still once he hit the ground. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> All four kids turned to see who their rescuer was. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> It was the Major.
"Get up," he said, "We've got some work to do."
The Major had made his decision: they could not go on like this. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">After he had saved the kids' hides, they immediately went and delivered the stolen cart to Thoki. It was a silent trip. Who knew what was going through those kids' heads? The Major didn't care.
Thoki, however had been positively joyful to see his wares again.
"OH GUD STRANGERS!!! Thoki cud KISS yus!! Thoki is so hahpy!!!"
Ugh, the Major was in a foul mood, and somehow Thoki's hysteria didn't seem to help.
After getting directions from Thoki on how to reach the village, they said their goodbyes and headed in opposite directions: Thoki rode his cart into town while the Major led the kids back into the fields of green. Once they got there, it was nearly dark, so they decided to crash at the top of a hill in the dead center of the fields. Soon, the kids were fast asleep.
The Major, however, had other plans.
He spent the whole night awake, so he could build something they would be needing for the next month or so from the available materials. This was not a long list. He got wood from the forest to the right of the craggy areas, found water from a creek in the same forests, and wove together some grass nets, since grass was in surplus stock. It was daybreak before he was finished and began heading back to their campsite. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> Along the way, he thought about what he had seen yesterday. The performance of his young ones was why he had brought them back to these fields. What was it Thoki had called them? The Jade Hills, that was it. The name certainly did fit; the hills were definitely very green, and they did seem to glisten when the sun shone just right. They were also quite vast. All-in-all they would serve the Major's purposes just fine.
The Major had expected to see the kids up and about by the time he got to camp. When he saw no sign of any activity as he marched up the hill, he started to get both anxious and annoyed. And annoying the Major was probably one of the top five deadliest extreme sports in the universe, maybe even top three. The kids were not going to like what was in store for them. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> When he reached the camp, he casually enter it without waking anybody, which was not a good sign. It meant he would actually have to wake them up himself. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> "Rise and shine, sleeping beauties!!" he said in a sarcastic voice. When this got no response, he took a deep breath, and at the top of his lungs shouted, "ON YOUR FEET!!!" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> The kids were out of their sleeping bags and stock straight in about 1.7 seconds. Hmm... it seemed they'd have to work on improving time-efficiency.
"SIR!" Praxer said, while making a failing effort not to yawn, "What's wrong?" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> The Major simply replied, "I am surrounded by people who seem to be more focus when sleeping than when fighting. Now get yourselves together so I don't have to yell at half-awake test dummies. I do NOT want to hear any yawning interrupt me, got it?" He made his voice sound as militaristic as possible. "Do whatever it is you usually do in the mornings, so I can begin our little pep talk."
The Major was in a foul mood, and the kids were finding it hard not to notice. Once they had had some breakfast and coffee, they lined up at attention in front of the Major. Without telling them, he was actually timing them. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> 'Hmm... we'll DEFINITELY need to work on some time-efficiency,' he thought.
Once they were all lined up, the Major began his speech.
"I'll get straight to the point. Yesterday your performance was somewhat lacking. In fact, you work about as efficiently together as the average rank 2 noob can work alone!!"
The kids shot nervous glances at each other. They didn't think they had been THAT bad. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> "Your form is terrible." the Major continued, "You only won by virtue of the fact that you outnumbered them four to three, and that I was there to save your hides when you got sloppy at the end. And your opponents were just common thieves!!! We cannot go on like this."
At that point, the kids were hanging their heads low, and they didn't make a sound. It was almost as if the Major was looking at four Jonathons wearing different gear. The Major paused to see if one broke the silence, either to defend them or to lighten up the mood. Leave it to Praxer to be the one to object. <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> "I, for one, think we performed rather well considering it was our first real-life combat experience."
The Major was stunned. "Wha-what?? Did you just say-"
"It was our first live-fire exercise, sir." Praxer apparently had an urgent need to interrupt.
The Major decided that this was the last straw. "Well, I have still seen better, and let me tell you this: You have not earned the armor you wear. So until you do, you shall not wear it."
Then it was Praxer's turn to be stunned. "Whah? You don't mean-"
"Yes I do. And do not interrupt." The Major held out his hand to the shocked kids. "Cough 'em up," he said, "and you'll get them back when you earn them." <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> For a few seconds, all three were stunned. Then Jonathon reached up and pulled off his helmet, revealing short brown hair underneath. He handed it to the Major, along with the rest of his armor once he had removed it. The others followed suit, but instead of shock on their faces, they now glared daggers at the Major. But the interesting thing was that the glare began when Jonathon had surrendered his helmet. The Major wondered if perhaps he had touched a very serious subject, one that had an unpleasant back-story. But he decided that he would have to worry about this later, and continued his speech.
"Now here is how you will earn them back. We will be spending the next month or more training in these hills. I will take each of you aside, one at a time, and train you individually for a week. The order will be: Praxer, Axolc, Reyna, and then Jonathon. Then, once you all meet my expectations, we will spend some extra time reviewing everything and testing your new capabilities. Once these individual tests are completed, we will begin team training, which we'll end in a similar manner, except the tests will be harder, since you'll be working together. We will spend as many months as it takes to get you up to an acceptable level. Are we clear?"
The Major looked around. His trainees looked a little uncertain, but no one had any questions. Which suited the Major just fine.
"In that case, we will begin immediately. In case you didn't catch this part, Praxer, you're coming first. The others will stay here, while we go off to another hill where they won't distract you." The Major focused his stare. "Unless you have any objections?" <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> He said the last part in a tone that clearly indicated what would happen if Praxer did. Praxer wasn't stupid, and got the gist. "No sir!" he said, "Let's get this over with, sir."
The Major glanced at the others. "Good," he said, "then let's go." <p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt"> And so they began their trek to the other side of the fields.
<p class="MsoNormal" style="margin-bottom: 0.0001pt;">
As they walked, the Major contemplated the past few days. In particular he pondered his group of learners. When he took the job he was told that they were from a branch of Nexus Force called A.N.C. or "Advanced Nexus Commandos"
But what troubled him was that it was certain that these kids were neither "advanced" nor "commandos", just the opposite in fact.
And that meant that "A.N.C." was a fake. It had to be a cover for something else. But what?
The Major now knew he had two mysteries he needed to solve before he could leave: the one he was hired to solve, and the secret of these kids.
What could it mean?
Praxer had woken up in a foul mood. And being picked on by this... outsider hadn't helped.
By the time they reached their destination (which of course was on the other side of the fields, which from his observations were no different than the side the others were in), Praxer was sore and tired, and neither of these ever helped to improve his mood. He was impatient to get this so called "training" over with. As if there was anything he needed to learn.
"So what now?" he asked the Major.
"You run the course," the Major said, indicating an obstacle course he had set up, "and then come back." The Major indicated a bypass he had built alongside the course. "I will time you. You will repeat the course as many times as it takes for you to meet my expectations."
Prax looked at the course. It started on the hill they were on, with a wooden bridge leading to the neighboring hill (as if there needed to be a bridge). Then the course continued through some sandbags hung on ropes that swung like pendulums, and on to stepping stones, rope challenges, rings that looked like those rings of fire you see in the movies except they weren't on fire, and something that looked similar to a conveyor belt before it finally ended on another neighboring hill. The entire course covered at least five hills.
"Fine," Praxer replied, "and when I get back you'll be shocked at how low you placed your expectations."
"We'll see," the Major said, as if there was something he wasn't Praxer, but he knew the boy would find out soon enough.
Praxer got ready to run the course. He began his warm-up by stretching his legs and working his way up, as was his usual routine.
But then his routine was interrupted when the Major said, "Just a reminder: you're being timed."
"Yeah. So?" was Praxer's reply.
"As in right now." the Major clarified.
"Wait, what? How the crux is that fair?!"
"Life's not fair. There will be times when you will not have the time to sip lovely wine and stretch your legs. Do you think the Maelstrom or whatever it is Nexus Force is fighting this week is gonna see you stretchin' your legs and say 'Oh, I'm sorwy! Were you going to warm up first? I'll just come back later when you're done.'"
Praxer was now convinced that the Major was deliberately trying to push all his buttons. 'Whatever we're fighting this week?! Who does he think he is?'
As if reading his thoughts, the Major said, "If you're thinking about trying to put me in what you see as my place, remember that we have yet to put you in yours. Or, to save us a bunch of trouble, you could just run the course, seeing as your time is ticking."
This, Praxer decided, was the limit. He'd show him. He'd set a record the Major would never forget.
Praxer got up and dashed to the course, and when he got to the bridge he didn’t slow down. About 3 feet across, the floorboards he was standing on gave way, and he plummeted down through the supports. He had wondered why the seemingly solid supports were necessary; they weren't. They were hollow, and led down to a tunnel underground.
‘This is probably another way to the end of the course,’ he thought, ‘our old instructor used to have quite a few of those in our old exercises.’
Praxer sighed, oh how he longed for the days training in Nexus Tower, before he was forced to put up with this outsider. But those days were long gone, and-
And he remembered his timer was ticking.
Curses! He got up to his feet, and raced down the tunnel. His path was dimly lit by some torches hung on the walls. At the end there was a ladder, but it went up beyond the light of the torches. But seeing as he had no other way, he climbed. He figured it could be another way to the end.
He hit his head on something hard. He groped around with one hand, while holding on with the other. He couldn't see where he was; he couldn't see what he was doing; he couldn't even see the hand that was two inches from his face!
Then he felt a handle on the ceiling, and pushed.
He found himself outside, which meant the handle had belonged to a trapdoor! He gave a sigh of relief, he had finally finished the-
And then he saw the Major in front of him, and realized he was back where he had started.
The Major shook his head, slowly and deliberately, as if to say, "You have my sympathy, but that doesn't change the fact that you fail!"
Praxer growled, and started again. By this time he knew not to ask the Major if his time would be reset.
He looked at the bridge. There had to be some way to get across it. And then it hit him: the handrails.
Praxer turned himself sideways, and planted his feet on the left handrail, while hanging onto the right one with his hands. He slowly moved himself along with his hands and feet, until he had reached the opposite end. He looked back, but he couldn't tell the Major's expression, since his posture gave no indication to anything, and like always, he was wearing his helmet.
When he remembered that his time was ticking, Praxer turned back to the course ahead. The next challenge was the swinging sandbags. He ran right in. Praxer thought he was doing pretty well, until about halfway through, one of the bags hit him. Whatever was in there was definitely not sand, in reality it felt more like cement. Knowing the Major, it probably WAS cement.
Praxer gritted his teeth and continued, but he was worn and less focused. He was getting hit more often. But since the Major hadn't told him to restart the first time he got hit, he didn't care.
Then, when he was almost to the end of the sandbag portion, three sandbags descended on him in unison, and he couldn't get away in time. He was already weakened from getting hit so much, and he had also noticed that, unless his senses were deceiving him, the load in the sandbags had been getting heavier and heavier, as if gradually transitioning from sand to cement, only in this case from cement to something that made cement seem as soft as sand. But these three sandbags must have made a giant departure from the pattern, because in comparison, the earlier cement-filled sandbags felt as light as air. But he didn’t care, because whatever these three bags were filled with, the combined force of all three was too much for Prax in his weakened state, and he tumbled of the edge of the course.
At first, Praxer was grateful that the hill wasn't so steep or high up from ground level. That was before he had fallen through the false layer of grass that the Major had been so kind to weave. It turned out that underneath this deception, the hill was very, very steep and very, very high up. After at least 60 seconds he finally landed in a pool of mud (60 seconds may not seem like a long time, but it seems like an eternity when you are falling down a practically vertical hill).
The good news was that the mud cushioned the impact, so he survived.
The bad news was that, well, it was mud.
The worst news of all was that the first thing he saw when he came out was a sign that read:
IF YOU CAN READ THIS THEN YOU'LL HAVE TO START OVER
'Oh, c’mon! This guy has got some nerve!'
And so Praxer continued the course, and the Major's hidden surprises did not let up. The stepping stones, he learned, were not only waxed but also positioned over a hidden bed of nails. The rope challenges used extremely weak ropes, so he had to jump from one rope to the next rapidly or they would break. The rings he had first described as "rings of fire minus the fire" were actually covered with painful substances of varying kinds, including acid, boiling tar, glue, and an unidentifiable one with the properties of all three. He had to restart the course five times before he reached the conveyor belt challenge.
That was when he realized that the conveyor belt part was another unstable bridge, except this time there were obstacles advancing on him. He looked and saw that these were actually modified Samuraizor dummies with wheels. Somehow they managed to not fall through the weaker floorboards. Which would mean... the center would have to be stable enough to support them! ....which would mean he could safely traverse it!
The problem was: then he would be directly on the line of the dummies' path, so he would have to fight his way through them. And his current state was weaponless.
He charged forward to confront the first one, and flipped it over his head. But this wasn’t an instantaneous maneuver, so by the time he had completed it the next one was practically on top of him. He punched it with all his might, and it flipped over on top of the one behind it. He leapt over those two, and knocked the next one aside with a swift roundhouse kick. Inch by inch, little by little, ever so slowly he was fighting his way across to the end. By the time he got there, he had no energy left.
His face was red, and covered in cuts. His body was bruised all over, and he was beginning to suffer from fatigue. He looked over to the contraption that had been producing the dummies. It was similar to the statues in Forbidden Valley, except it held a Samuraizor in each hand, and it didn't quite resemble a dark ronin. It actually looked more like one of the dummies itself.
Praxer's exhaustion soon gave way to rage at this machine that had caused him pain, and in his fury he grabbed one of the Samuraizors and snapped it in half. Then he did the same for the other one.
Then he turned and began to make his way across the bridge that led straight back to the Major. But he was so tired that he barely noticed when one of the floorboards gave way, and he fell down into the tunnel below. By the time he lifted the lid of the trapdoor and pulled himself out, tears were ready to run down his cheeks. But he didn’t let them. He had completed the course, and that was all that mattered.
But wait - hadn't he just come up through the trapdoor? But then that would mean-
He gave in and cried. He didn't care that the Major was right there in front of him. He just closed his eyes and let the tears roll down. He had failed.
The Major had seen enough. It was clear that there was more to this boy than meets the eye. Arrogant he may be, but he had endurance like none the Major had ever seen. The Major had wanted to see what it would take to break him, and now he knew: it was the sense of defeat when faced with victory. The Major had just left a little taste of this feeling at the end by having the floorboards of the way back be as weak as the ones on the first bridge. At the time he thought this would not be enough if the person had already cleared the entire course. Apparently he was wrong. This blow might pretty well have crushed the boy's spirit. If it had, the Major might never forgive himself. But it had done its job: it had softened the boy so he was ready for the Major’s training.
The Major did, however, see that this boy had been through enough for one day. He picked up the boy, and carried him over to the camp they would be using for the rest of the week. He laid Prax on his cot, and brought the blankets up to the boys head. It felt odd to feel pity for this boy, who had given him the hardest time of them all.
Then the Major turned around to lie down on his own cot. He was asleep in seconds.
And that night, he dreamed about his past.
The Major woke up with a start! He surveyed his surroundings until he knew that there was nothing out of the ordinary.
He sat up and thought about what had happened. He had had the dream again last night, the dream that he had had since he was a kid. But the thing that tortured him about it was that he knew it wasn't just a dream, it was actually a memory. Most people can just shrug off a bad dream and say "It's not important, because it isn't real," but the Major couldn't. His dream actually WAS real.
The Major wondered why he would've had the dream again now, fifteen years since the last time he had had it. Usually, people say that when repeating dreams that they had forgotten suddenly return, that they return more vivid than ever before. In the Major's case, however, the dream hadn't become more vivid, just a bit less accurate with details in order to make it more dramatic and terrifying. And if this sort of thing could disturb the Major, who knew what horrors Jonathon was seeing each night?
The thought of Jonathon brought him back into the present: he was supposed to be training the kids.
He got up with a grunt and walked over to Praxer's bed to wake him up. But to his surprise, Praxer's bed was empty. He looked around, and when he didn't see the boy anywhere, he decided to check out the area more thoroughly.
It is said that a day where you don't learn anything is a day you didn't live. And the Major was learning something new each day.
He found Praxer at the obstacle course, trying to get a better time.
The Major watched from afar as the boy prepared to run it once more. The boy crouched down in a ready position, braced himself in that position for three seconds, and then darted over the unstable bridge. He ran so fast that he was always one step ahead of the falling boards. The Major was seriously impressed.
And then he didn't stop there. The Major watched as Praxer dashed through the swinging sandbags without even slowing down. Not a single one hit him. He was evading left, right, over, around, and then, to the Major's wonder, actually slid under the final three without slowing down, and was back on his feet the moment he was clear. He had not even slowed down.
The Major realized that, without knowing it, he had actually been timing the boy's progress, and he was glad he did. The record was astounding.
When he got to the waxed stepping stones, Prax jumped to the first one, and then the second, and then the third. The Major realized that he was actually timing each step so that he landed on the closest edge of each stone, slid forward, and then propelled himself off the opposite edge. Now the Major was REALLY impressed.
When he reached the rope challenges (he hadn't stopped running) he grabbed the nearest rope and snapped it off, jumped into the air, swung the rope he was holding over one the bars the ropes hung from with his right hand, grabbed the opposite end in his left, and zepplined across to the other side. And incredibly, the boy still had not slowed down even once!
Then came the ring challenge. By this point the Major was incredibly intent at watching the boy and was anxious to find out what he would do next. And he wasn't disappointed. Praxer leapt into the air, used the rope he was still holding like a whip, and swung through the ring. His hands were so close to the top of the ring and of his rope, it almost looked insane. But the Major still made a note that he would need to design them a bit smaller in the future.
After Prax had repeated the process several times, he reached the Samuraizor dummy challenge. The Major watched, as the boy again used his rope like a whip, only this time on the first dummy. Once he was sure it was securely fasten, began to swing the rope, and the dummy, over his head. He charged forward, and as each dummy got close, it was suddenly whipped off the track by the boy's new powerful swinging weapon. In no time at all he was at the end, but, unlike yesterday, this time he didn't stop. He dashed across the final bridge to the start hill the same way he had run across the first. He only came to rest once he was on the hill.
And that was when the Major finally decided that his presence should be known.
- CLAP*CLAP*CLAP*CLAP* "BRAVO, Prax, BRAVO!!!" *CLAP*CLAP*
Praxer looked shocked. Getting applause was one thing; getting it from the Major was another entirely. In fact, up until that point he had thought that his latest run was somewhat behind the others he had made that morning. But now he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was a sight he would never forget.
"Good Morning, Major" he said, "How long have you been there?"
"Just long enough to see that last run," the Major replied, "in which you managed to beat my expectations by half."
Praxer was stunned. He had not expected to clear the Major's minimum time until later that afternoon! Who knew? Maybe this could be the start of something more... he couldn't think of the right word. But he had the feeling that, whatever it was, this would be the start. And he was excited.
"So what's on the schedule for training today?" he asked, innocently.
The Major leaned back, as if trying to remember. "Well, let's see..." he began, "I believe that today we ditch the obstacle courses and go work on our leadership skills. Sound good?" For once it was not a rhetorical question.
"Sounds good!" Prax replied, and they headed over to their camp. He found that he was actually starting to grow on the Major, which surprised him. But since he couldn't think of any reason why not, he decided to welcome the new friendship.
By the end of the day, he didn't even think he needed Nexus Force anymore.
At sunset, a spying figure emerged from his hiding place. He was glad he had remained in the hills, because now he had some valuable information for the king. In fact, the king might even reward him. The thought brought an certain feeling to mind, but whether it was ambition or happiness he couldn't tell. It had always been hard for anyone his race to differentiate the two.
It had been weeks since he had first lost contact with his companions. When he finally found them again two days ago, all three of them were dead, and the cart that they were supposed to deliver was nowhere in sight. He once again felt glad that he had decided to stick around, or else he never would have heard what had happened to them.
Apparently, a couple of kids, led by a peculiar bounty hunter, had stopped them. The kids had at first played innocent, but then they were uncovered as not being native. In fact, from what he had overheard from the two around the campfire, none of them were from anywhere nearby. He had also learned that the other three kids were at a separate camp, though he had yet to find out why they were divided.
The figure considered his options. He could either go and report to the king now, or he could stay in the Jade Hills a while longer. If he stayed longer, then he further had the choice of trying to gather more intel, or try and take out the three kids over on the other side, since from what he had gathered they were rather inexperienced.
He pondered a while, and then decided that first he would eavesdrop on the other camp before heading back to alert the king, WITHOUT starting anything.
After all, he would definitely need proof before the king would believe his story about warriors from another world.
For Prax, it seemed like the week had gone by in a single day. He had never felt like this before.
But it was the last day of training, and he knew the Major had to work with the others as well. They couldn't train together much longer. This would be their last day.
But Praxer had plans for it.
By now the Major was getting tired just by trying to think about what A.N.C. could mean. It could be anything, but nothing seemed likely. This morning the Major had finally decided that it probably wasn't actually "A.N.C.", just something pronounced in a similar way: "ANK".
The sound of Praxer returning brought him out of his thoughts. He had let the boy run off because he had said there was something special he said he needed to work on. So he let him, and had sat there all morning waiting for his return.
He heard the sound of an engine, which was odd, since there shouldn't have been anyone around to drive it, unless.....
Oh, crux! The Major turned to face the sound with his weapon raised. He aimed it squarely at the driver…
It was Prax.
"What in Nex's name do you think you're doing boy?!" the Major yelled.
Prax just smiled as he pulled up next to the Major and climbed down. "I found this abandoned on the side of the road, and decided it would make our trips across the fields much easier," he replied.
The Major was extremely worried, the boy didn't seem to get that this could blow their cover, and with it their whole operation. He quickly pressed Praxer for more precise details. "A: What road? Did they recently make one here in the middle of nowhere? B: Did you actually see someone desert it? C: When did this happen? D: If this was what you needed to work on, why did you not inform me sooner?" The Major was counting each one on his fingers as he said them.
Prax was just as quick to reply; He sounded sarcastic today, which, from the Major’s observations thus far, usually meant he was in a good mood (for him). "A: It was just a figure of speech; I found it in the woods. B: No, but it was in pretty bad shape when I found it upside-down and stuck in the creek. C: I first found it three days ago, and I've been working on it during my spare time. D: Ever heard of surprises?"
The Major was now very worried; if the vehicle had been found like that then the owners were probably still around. "A: This is not a joke, please be literal. B: Then our presence may be known. C: By 'spare time' do you mean when you're supposed to be asleep? D: Not a good idea when in enemy territory."
"A: Whatever. B: I doubt it. C: You sound like my mother. D: See 'A'."
"Alright, enough of this nonsense!! Tell me everything, in chronological order and medium-length adaptation." The Major was getting very impatient.
Praxer, however, noticed this, so he decided to tell the Major his story without any more hassle. "Ok, so during our foraging exercise three days ago, I stumbled upon this, but I was in a hurry, so I ignored it and moved on. Later I came back and managed to haul it out of the mud, and, by the looks of it, it has been here longer than we have. Over the past few nights I've been restoring it, and today I finally finished the new paint job. As you can see, it's very adaptable, and can ride most terrains with ease. It can also hold up to 5 people: 2 in the front, 2 in the back, and one on the turret."
"Did you say it has a TURRET?! Then that means it's a WAR VEHICLE!!! Which means it would only be here if WE HAD BEEN DISCOVERED!!!"
Praxer shook his head. "It was in the creek longer than we've been in the fields, remember?"
"Oh really?" the Major said, as he walked over and leapt into the machine. "Then, pray tell, why isn't there any MOLD on these MILITARY RATIONS I just found in the WATERPROOF COMPARTMENTS?!"
Praxer's grin turned to a frown as he realized he had been set up. He quickly leapt up into the shotgun seat, and fastened his seatbelt. When he looked over, the Major was already buckled in the driver's seat.
The Major stepped on the pedal, and they rushed across the fields. Not a word was spoken. Both of them knew that Praxer had made an honest mistake, but both of them also knew that he shouldn't have kept it a secret. Both of them knew where they needed to go, and both of them knew who they would find when they got there. What neither of them knew was how many of them would still be alive.
When the squad's transport crashed, they done an excellent job in making the accident look less recent. But they knew the deception couldn't last, so they moved swiftly to confront the three younger warriors.
The king HAD been pleased with the one who had been spying the other night. So much so, in fact, that he made him the leader of the mission he put in effect: to eliminate the other-worlders. This promotion worked two-ways: if they succeeded, he would have earned it, but if they failed it would mean he would be dead anyways, so it all worked out. And he planned on succeeding.
But there was one problem: these kids did not seem to know when to DIE!! For TWO DAYS they had besieged their camp, and yet still the greatest warriors on the planet were unable to breach the rag-tag defenses set up by these kids!! It was OUTRAGEOUS!!!
He hadn't lost any men, thankfully, but as far as he could tell, neither had they. And the other two were due back any day now, so if they were going to succeed, they needed a new plan, NOW.
The mission leader had been thinking these very thoughts when his lieutenant walked over and addressed him. He leaned over to whisper something in the leader's ear. When he finished, the leader was grinning from ear to ear, and gave the orders of attack as had just been suggested.
Then the leader looked back at the children's defenses. It seemed strange, but he admired them. But then they were fellow warriors too, so to respect them was only natural. But to admire them...
He shook of these thoughts, his duty came first. He turned around and got ready for the final attack.
The kids were running out of options. When they had realized they were under attack, Reyna and Axolc had immediately fortified the hill they were on with whatever they could find and prop up, which happened to be a dozen classic rocket parts of varying colors. Jon had helped set them up too, but they had let him rest since he was scared. They all were, but Jon was especially. He was the youngest after all, and the most emotionally scarred.
It had been two days since they had first seen the approaching enemy warriors, who were making a failing effort to not be detected. They were, after all, in a grassy field that went on for miles and miles without any sort of cover. This had given the kids enough time to prepare their defenses.
They had then proceeded with their job of staying alive. Axolc knew they were causing the attackers some grief; at the start of the battle, they had rigged anything they couldn't use as cover to explode, and hurled them over the defenses and down into the enemy camp. As far as Axolc could tell, this hadn't caused any casualties, but it had caused a great deal of loud cussing from the attacking forces.
A closer inspection had revealed that the attackers wore similar outfits to the thieves who had stolen the cart, and Axolc was sure this was not a coincidence. How they knew about them, he didn't know. Maybe they got worried when their booty hadn't arrived at the scheduled time. Who knew?
It didn't matter. What mattered now was that there was an unusual amount of activity in the enemy camp, as if they were getting ready to attack again. Axolc woke up Reyna, who had been asleep. They decided to let Jon sleep longer, at least until they really needed him. They did not want to cause him any more worry, and he needed rest.
Reyna took her Elite Long-Barreled Blaster out of her backpack. Normally, Axolc would have used his Flareguns for this, but the Major had taken them away, along with the rest of their faction gear. It was cruel, but at least now they were all motivated. They knew they wouldn't get them back until their training was complete. But that didn't change the fact that they were at a disadvantage without them.
"That's why he took them away," Axolc accidentally thought out loud.
"Hmm, what? Who?" Reyna had heard him, and was half-listening as she lined up one of their models that had not yet exploded in her scopes.
"The Major," Axolc replied, "He took away our faction gear so that we are learning how to fight when we are at a disadvantage. He wasn't just trying to motivate us."
"Hmm.... well, I think he actually meant what he said. I half agree with him actually." Reyna measured the charge on her blaster, and was about to fire when someone blocked her shot. She cursed under her breath, and looked for another target, preferably explosive. "I mean, most recruits have seen enough combat before they even join a faction. All three of us have/had/will have rank three gear and we had never even been in battle. And he's The Major! He's probably wondering why they teamed US up with HIM."
"So am I." Axolc replied, "I can't stop thinking about it."
Reyna's eyes passed over a crate of ammunition. "I probably would be too, except I don't ever let myself worry about it." she said as she charged up her blaster, "I'm too busy worrying about the job at hand."
Axolc glanced around, and he realized one of the attackers was missing. "Hey where's the one in red?" he asked, "The one who acts like he's the leader."
Reyna glanced around. "I don't see him," she said, "and so far he hasn't seemed like the kind who would miss a fight-"
Both Reyna and Axolc wheeled around when they realized they had been fooled. The real attack was coming from behind, while the activity in the camp was just a distraction.
Only one attacker had already entered the camp: The one who wore red instead of blue.
He grinned an evil grin, raised his battle staff, and charged.
The Major and Prax were mere minutes away from their destination. Along the way the Major had noticed that there were several tracks identical to their vehicle’s own, all leading in the direction they were heading.
"You get in the turret." the Major told Prax. "This could get hairy."
Praxer leapt out of his seat and climbed into the turret seat. It was similar enough to his Assembly turrets that he could use it instinctively. He revved it up, and prayed that it would work when he would need to use it.
Axolc reached into his backpack, and drew the first weapon he laid his hands on, a super dirk. It wasn't great for this situation, but it would have to do. He threw it at the leader to stop his charge, but he unintentionally added spin to his throw and it hit with the blunt end. This did, however, stun the red warrior. Axolc followed up with a flying kick in his opponent's face.
The warrior went reeling, but quickly recovered, and began to swing his staff at the boy. Axolc was nimble, but he couldn't dodge his attacks forever. He needed a new plan.
He looked over at Reyna, who was holding back the other attackers. She was doing pretty well, considering she was armed with only her blaster and an elite katana. But she was still preoccupied.
Axolc dodged one attack by sliding between the leader's legs and tripping him from underneath. This momentary respite was enough for Axolc to pull out his next two items, which luckily for him, happened to be a Fantastic Pilum and a Wolf Shield. He drew both of these, and slowly advanced on the recovering warrior.
When the warrior saw him, he rolled on his back and leapt to his feet. He charged at Axolc with his staff raised. But Axolc was ready this time, and blocked the incoming attack with his pilum. He soon put the warrior back on the defensive.
The warrior soon realized he had his back straight up against the wall of the makeshift defenses. When he felt the wall at his back, he smiled as if it was all part of his plan. He slapped Axolc with his shield, momentarily stunning him. He then grabbed the rocket part at the bottom, and yanked it free. Axolc watched as the wall collapsed under its unstable weight, revealing the true nature of this attack.
The camp really had been preparing to attack, and now they were lined up and ready, with the defenses already toppled for them. It had been a double bluff.
That was when Axolc noticed that Jon was standing next to him, with nothing but an ordinary great short sword to defend himself. He was grim-faced and determined.
When Reyna saw that their defenses were broken, she decided how to make better use of the ones on her end of camp. She pushed the models out of their alignment, and directed them down the hill, where the forces they thought were the main attack were positioned. The models fell on them and trapped them underneath. With this done, Reyna turned to stand by Axolc and Jon.
They stood side by side, looking at the opposing army with grim resolve; they all knew none of them would ever back down.
The leader of the warriors stood in front of the kids with a victorious look on his face, as he knew he had won. These kids who had caused him so much grief were finished. But then he decided to give them one last chance, since they were only kids, after all.
"You three have fought bravely," he said in a thick accent, "but it is futile. You face the strongest army to ever traverse the planet Crux. Surrender now, or you will suffer."
To his amazement, all three kids shook their heads slowly, deliberately, and in unison. He looked at them in awe. Not a single one of the kids in front of him was ever going to surrender. They were all going to fight to the death.
"You never cease to amaze me for ones so young." he said, "I truly admire your spirit. But that doesn't mean you will receive any mercy from me. We all have to die sometime."
Then he noticed that all three were now looking at him with smiles on their faces. The one he had just fought in single combat stepped forward, and said, "Well, do it then."
The leader was baffled, because the young one had made it clear in his tone that he meant "you die" and not "you kill us". That was when the leader realized that they were not looking at him, but behind him.
As he turned around to look he heard the engines.
Everyone watched in awe as the vehicle appeared over the hill behind the attackers. It was going so fast it actually did not level out with the hill, and shot into the air. Everyone was still petrified as they watched it cruise in the air before coming in for a landing, right in the center of the attacking army. It landed without damaging itself, or, to everyone's shock, even slowing down! When the attackers realized they were being mowed over by a four-wheeled demon, they panicked. The vehicle was on a rampage through their lines, and whatever it missed on impact was being neutralized with the turret.
When about half the army was dead or decommissioned, their leader decided enough was enough, and raced over to their deserted camp. He rushed into one of the tents, soon reappearing with a rocket launcher in his hands. He hurried back the way as he prepped the launcher for use. The moment it was ready, he stopped in his tracks, got the vehicle in his sights, and fired.
The rocket cruised over the battlefield, homing in on its target. The target had no defense.
The vehicle was blown off its wheels and into the air. It landed with a crash, bounced low a few times, and then continued to roll across the battlefield, before coming to a screeching halt, all the while being consumed by fire.
For moment, everyone stared. No one could comprehend how quickly everything had happened. Could it really have gone in and out in just a matter of seconds?
After what seemed like forever staring at the motionless burning vehicle, the attackers decided the answer was yes, and turned back to what they had been doing, as if it had only been a minor interruption. They slowly advanced up the hill to the kids, who had not moved.
But then there was a sound of scraping metal, and everyone turned to see two silhouettes emerging from the burning rubble. Some squinted to get a better look, some shook their heads in denial, and some just stared.
But when the Major and Praxer emerged from the fire with weapons raised, the army knew it was no delusion.
And then the battle began.
The Major and Praxer charged forward and waded their way through the enemy army. The kids did likewise, and they met halfway between. After learning that they were all unharmed, the Major left them with Praxer while he scurried the battlefield, doing damage to whatever got in his way as he searched for one warrior in particular. He found him lying on the ground, where being out of breath from the recoil shock of the rocket launcher was apparently the least of his troubles. There was also a piece of shrapnel stuck in his chest, and from the looks of it, the wound was mortal. The Major also noticed that he happened to be the leader, since he wore red instead of blue. The Major was about to finish him off when he spoke.
"Wait," he breathed weakly, "Tell me... who are you?" he coughed violently, before continuing, "I must know... so that I... may enter... the next life... know-*cofkf*-ing the name... of the grea-*cofkf*-t warrior... who proved... my better." Whenever the warrior's words were too long to rasp between breaths, he coughed and cringed in pain.
The Major decided that the warrior had the right to this last wish, "In whatever world you call the next life, you may tell the people there that you were slain by the great MajorQ12, who came not from another world, but from another time."
The warrior smiled, tried inaudibly to mouth on last thing, and died.
Once they realized that their leader was dead, the fight went out of the remaining warriors. Soon, there was nothing moving on the battlefield. The Major had let some of the warriors escape, knowing that if they ever spoke of this battle, they would not speak encouragingly about going for round two.
That night, in his personal log, the Major concluded:
"It was actually very fortunate that Praxer found the vehicle, or else we never would have made it in time, and the others would be dead. So I guess I should be grateful he found it, but that doesn't mean I can say the same for keeping his discovery secret. I've decided to say that the two cancel each other out, and leave it at that.
"But this 'A.N.C.', or whatever it really is, remains a mystery. I was going to spend our last day of training discussing this with Praxer, before the incident occurred. I'm certain that he is the only one who I can trust to give me straight answers and not tell the others of our discussion. I must try to talk with him tonight, during his watch or my own. I feel like I'm so close to finding the truth, tantalizingly close. But if Reyna or Jon discovered my interest, who knows how they would react? Who knows how ANY of them would react? I can't risk falling back to square one, so I must act now, and I must act quietly."
When he was done writing this, he realized that he was starting to nod off. He decided to give in to his need for sleep, since, after all, the best he could ever do was prolong it's desire.
Sometime in the night, the Major found himself being shaken awake. It was Praxer. The boy beckoned the Major to sit with him.
The Major got up, and did a visual scan of the area, as was his timeless habit. When he was certain the area was clear, he walked over to sit next to Prax. The boy got straight to the point.
"Sir, what happened with the vehicle... I'm sorry. I should never have kept it a secret, sir. I know that now. And I'm sorry."
The boy hung his head low in submission and utter shame. The Major simply replied, "It's alright. You learned your lesson, and what's more, if you hadn't found and restored that vehicle we never would have made it in time. So you can call us even."
Prax perked up when he heard this, and then lifted his head and gazed at the stars. "Maybe," he slowly said as he gazed out into space, "But we all still owe you for the incident with the cart."
"Well, remember I'm not charging you any interest."
They both laughed, like old friends laughing at old jokes that should have stopped being funny several hundred uses ago. That was how solid their relationship had become. The Major wondered if the others would end up the same way, until he realized that if he could create this sort of bond with Praxer, the rest would be easy in comparison! He had mixed feelings on that.
"I'll keep that in mind, sir" the boy interrupted the Major's thoughts with a chuckle. The Major smiled back, but of course Prax couldn't see it through his helmet. The Major never removed his helmet, EVER. The world could only make wild guesses as to what was underneath, and the Major liked it that way. But it was time to get to the point.
"I actually wanted a word with you, Prax, before I go back to sleep." he said in a now serious tone. Prax looked at him inquisitively, as the Major continued, "I want to know about how you got to be where you are today. How you joined Nexus Force."
Praxer winced, "That's a sensitive topic sir, especially for Jon and Reyna-"
"-Which is why I'm asking you. I need to know, ok? Whether it's going to be a safety issue or not, whatever happened to you is just… well just look at poor Jonathon! Whatever happened to him that made him like that?!"
Praxer's peaceful expression morphed into one of anger. "Get to the point," he said, "so we can go back to bed."
The Major was not deterred. "I want to know how you got to be in the Nexus Force at such a young age, and how you got your rank 3 gear without ever being in combat, and also whether that last part is really true. I highly doubt none of you had ever seen combat."
Praxer drew lines in the ground, which would have to do since there wasn’t any sand. After a short while, he finally said, "Reyna and Jon have seen combat," obviously with the intention of leaving it at that. But the Major was not finished.
"So it was your first time in real combat as a unit?"
Praxer nodded slowly, with his head still hung down, looking at the ground.
"Then what about you and Axolc?" the Major continued, "Where do you come from?"
When this got no response, the Major tried a different approach, "Who was your training officer?"
"Sgt. Vylar," Prax replied evenly.
The Major couldn't recall anyone with that name, so he pressed for more, "What did he look like? Any distinguishing features?"
Prax lifted his head and looked upwards, as if trying to remember. "He's Paradox," he finally said, "And he always carries a Wormholer. Umm... he has a dragon tattoo that runs down one side of his face." Praxer indicated where it would be on his own.
Oh no. It couldn't be. It's impossible! It-
The Major realized that Praxer was staring at him, and was once again grateful that he kept his helmet on, and that no one could ever read his expressions. It was always reassuring to know that no one would ever know what you were thinking unless you wanted them to.
The Major shook his head, and thought about the description again. Come to think of it, the tattoo didn't HAVE to mean it was really them. In fact, it probably wasn't even the same tattoo! The Major knew he was only fooling himself, but he decided it was necessary until he had solid proof. Otherwise, he would just assume that it was what he thought without any. That's how his mind worked: his own thoughts prevented himself from thinking certain other thoughts, and then gave reasons why he had to prevent them. It made him more efficient in the long run, though as to why he wasn't exactly certain. He just knew it was true.
"So how did you meet the others?" the Major finally asked.
Praxer hesitated before he decided that it was ok to answer, "Shortly after we were recruited, they put us together at random, except it really wasn't." Behind his helmet the Major raised an eyebrow as Prax continued, "That's how 4-man squads are normally formed, by randomly selecting one member of every faction. But Axolc and I... we already knew each other. We were from the same planet, even the same neighborhood, so we were sort of friends for a while..."
"When they recruited you, how long had it been since you two had seen each other?" the Major asked during the pause that followed.
Prax thought a moment. "I think it had been about three years," he finally said, "Anyways, we were teamed up with Reyna and Jonathon since they were extremely close, even taking into account that they were brother and sister." He paused a moment, then continued, "I actually heard that they were going to be separated when they were recruited, but they refused to leave each other's sides. I don't know if that's true, but I certainly believe it. You've seen how protective Reyna is with Jon."
The Major had, and he certainly knew what the boy meant. "But why would that make them decide to put you four together?" the Major inquired further.
Praxer turned to stare straight out into the space in front of them. "I don't think they approve of bonds." he finally said, "I figure they wanted to keep all the people with relationships in one place so that they wouldn't hinder multiple squads at once."
The Major was almost done with Prax. There was just one more thing he needed. "What happened to Reyna and Jon before you met them? What's their story?"
Praxer tensed up. "If I knew, I wouldn't tell," he stated grimly, "We never discuss it. Reyna has never told us, never talks about it, because it upsets Jon. She doesn't think he's ready, and we respect her judgment. So whatever happened is their business, period!" Prax looked like he was trying hard to contain his anger.
"Well then, I'll just have to ask them," the Major calmly asserted, as though he was surrendering just one battle in a war, a war that was far from over. "And hope that one of them will tell me."
"NO" Prax replied defiantly, "Do not, repeat: NOT, discuss this with anyone other than Reyna. If she won't tell you, then you may not, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, take this talk to Jon. IS THAT CLEAR?!" Praxer was on the verge of yelling, but luckily not quite there yet. Their discussion had yet to wake up anyone else, so the Major decided to end it before this status changed.
"Alright boy, have it your way," he said with an edge in his voice that was swiftly growing, "but this is something I need to know for the sake of not just the mission, but for our own sakes as well! And mark my words, I've been through worse than each and every one of you little tykes combined!"
Praxer was now both shocked and enraged. He snarled his retort, "You just keep thinking like that, Bounty Hunter, and see how far it gets you."
With that, the boy stormed off to bed, and the way he had spat his word of reference to the Major, he had made it clear that any sort of friendship they had ever had was now over.
The Major woke up realizing he had had the dream once again. He surveyed the area, and then got up with a grunt as he stretched out his back. Today was his first day of training with the Daredevil, Axolc. After what had happened last night with Praxer, he wasn't exactly looking forward to it. But time was of the essence, so he didn't want to waste it complaining.
He checked his chronometer. Curses! Because of his dream he had slept in again! He made a mental note to stop before it turned into a habit, and then got up on his feet. He leaned back on the tree behind him, and let the natural sounds of the forest wake him up.
Wait: Tree? Forest? Oh nexus...
He leapt up from his slouched position and wheeled around, searching left and right for any sort of clue as to why he had woken up in the forest instead of the fields. He continued glancing anxiously all around him, until he remembered: he had been trying to find the village. After his discussion with Prax, he had left to see the village so he could find out the identity of the attackers they had driven off. He realized he must have fallen asleep on the way over.
He relaxed for a moment, and then decided he had better go check up on the kids first. And then once again, he remembered that Axolc's training started today. Nexus! He wouldn't have any time left to visit the village. Oh well, it couldn't be helped.
He started his hike back to their camp. When he got there, he found the kids perfectly awake but idly chattering away in their beds. Relaxation is good, but they obviously weren't taking the situation seriously enough.
"OUT OF BED, TURKEYS!!" the Major shouted from the next hill over from their own, "OR YOU'LL BE SORRY WHEN I GET OVER THERE WITH YOU!!"
This got their attention, the Major observed, as the kids rushed around like mad rabbits. By the time the Major arrived, the camp was nice and spiffy, and all four kids were standing at attention. They looked rather ridiculous with scant weapons and armor between them, but to the Major it was acceptable since it was all they had. Or was it...?
The Major decided to test this new theory. "Open your packs," he ordered, "and dump their contents into separate piles."
They did as they were told, and the Major was shocked at how unevenly things had been divided. There were a total of 9 Big Ones, and Reyna owned almost all of them, whereas it seemed as though Praxer had been the only one carrying massive amounts of consumables. This simply would not do.
"Ok," the Major began, "from what I'm seeing, it seems as though you guys are pretty much independent about your gear, right?" They nodded. "Well, that's not good," the Major continued, "because you're a team. You should be working together, not as individuals. We will be talking more about this when we work on team skills. But for today, I’ll settle for just splitting up the consumables more evenly between you."
As it turned out, Praxer had contributed enough consumables for them to each have a decent amount. Each kid was given 20 snack packs, 10 armor gleams, 10 super notion potions and a handful of various food items. The faction drinks were left to their owners, since they couldn't share those anyways.
"We'll do the weapons and armor later," the Major said when they were done, "So you can put those back. But just remember that we will be coming back to them. Now, Axolc, this week it's your turn to train, so pack up the rest of your stuff with whatever else your friends wish to sacrifice in order to help you during the next week."
As it turned out, this speech got a reaction but not the desired one. The other kids now felt obligated to contribute, as opposed to feeling moved. The speech had backfired. Oh well, there would be other opportunities.
Once Axolc was packed up and ready, they decided to spend the rest of the morning searching the battlefield for anything they could salvage. They actually found that, other than the one Praxer had found, all the vehicles had made it intact. So that was a lucky break for them.
When it was time to leave, Axolc bade farewell to his friends, walked over to one of the vehicles, and then leapt into the driver’s seat without hesitation.
“Ahem,” the Major authoritatively said, “I’ll drive, if you don’t mind.” Axolc had seemed pretty let down, but he moved to the shotgun seat without question. Once they were strapped in, they set off to what Axolc assumed to be yet another hill in another corner of these endless fields.
"Okay, Axolc," the Major said when they reached their destination, which was, as Axolc had foreseen, just another random hill, "Are you ready to begin?"
"Crux, yeah!" Axolc eagerly responded.
The instant these words left his mouth, the boy found himself being flipped over onto his back. He hit the ground hard before rolling all the way down the hill. He hadn't even seen the Major move! He got up with a groan, and then protested, "Wh-what was that for?!"
"You said you were ready. I assumed you were being truthful. I guess I was mistaken."
Oh now, THAT got under Axolc's skin. He leapt back onto his feet and charged at the Major, only to find himself flying up, over, and down on the other side of his target. He landed in the grass with a thud.
“Ow” he breathed as he sat up and rubbed his head. The Major just stood there, not moving a muscle. Axolc watched the Major with shock; he looked as if he hadn’t moved since they had first begun! In fact, he even looked as though nothing had even happened yet and he was waiting for Axolc to hurry up and make any sort of move so they could begin! OH THE ARROGANCE!
Axolc jumped up, but then advanced more cautiously. ‘Maybe if I feint a movement to the right, he’ll fall for it-’
His thoughts were interrupted by the sensation of being swung around, and he realized that, once again, he had been lifted up off the ground. He was soon right back where he had started, in the same spot on the ground and panting for breath. By this time he was thoroughly enraged, which was very much unlike him. He wondered what training had been like for Prax.
“Ahem, if you are quite done kissing the dirt down there, perhaps we could get on with it?” the Major did not make it sound like he was impatient, but rather, he made it sound like he was the peak of civilization and cultural refinement, and he was addressing some insolent little boy who had just spoken out of turn. “Are you really going to sulk just because you were too busy forming your plan of attack to notice that I was attacking you first?” It was beyond infuriating.
Axolc charged again, but this time he actually managed to avoid the Major’s first lunge, allowing him to grab onto the first thing available, which happened to be the Major’s helmet. No sooner had he touched it than he found himself thrown back with such force that when he landed on his side he actually thought he heard something break. He couldn’t find the location of the fracture itself, but he certainly felt the resulting pain.
With a groan, he rolled over onto his back, and sat up. When he looked down, he saw blood coming from his arm. He looked up, and realized it was true: The Major actually had shot him, and stood with weapon poised to do it again. Axolc was rendered speechless.
The Major, however, was not.
“The helmet is off-limits,” he declared in his no-nonsense-or-else tone. “Remember that.”
The next morning, the Major offered Axolc a choice. They could either resume the exercise from yesterday, or they could start a different form of training. But the way he had said it was more like, “Now, do you want to spend the day training my way or the hard way? I was thinking we might want to do it my way for the sake of variety, but if you want to give the hard way another go…”
Axolc decided the Major’s way might be the better option in this case. So the Major led him on a short walk to a target range the Major had evidently set up. It was positioned on the first relatively flat area Axolc had seen since they had entered the Jade Hills. The targets themselves were lined up in six rows, three on his left that faced the right, and three on his right that faced the left. The rows were widely spaced, and the boy estimated that there were at least thirty targets in each row. The Major handed him a matching pair of basic flintlock pistols, which made Axolc’s day. He was about to start on the left side until the Major stopped him.
“Now, hold on. What’s the fun in doing it like that?” the Major said in a way that made Axolc sure he was smiling even though he couldn’t see for himself, “That’s not how this exercise works.”
The Major pointed at the pistols, saying, “You only have enough ammunition in those to hit each target once. No more, no less. When you’re in combat, sometimes you won’t even have that much, so consider me generous. You will run down that walkway,” the Major said as he pointed to a narrow wooden path between the two sides of the range, “and, without slowing down, hit as many targets as possible. If you miss one, do not waste precious ammunition trying to hit it. Just fire one shot and move on. I will tally your score.”
When the Major was done, Axolc walked over to the start of the path. A gate barred his way, and from the looks of it, it was similar to the ones he had seen watching sports, the kind that flipped down or to the side the instant a race began. He crouched into a ready position. He waited for the signal to begin.
When he heard the gunshot, Axolc was off so fast he almost caught on the gate as it took a whole .3 seconds to fully open. He was about to start firing, when he realized the targets weren’t there. It was not until he looked up that he saw them. They had been simultaneously shot 50 ft into the air above. So that was the trick. He would have to hit them before they hit the ground, when they would be out of sight. He let rip his pistols.
BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM
It was all that could be heard for miles. The sound of pistols discharging traveled farther than one might think possible, since the hills were completely void of anything that could possibly bar its way.
Axolc thought he was doing quite well, until he realized he was slowing down. He realized this because he saw how the Major had set one of their salvaged vehicles behind him, and now it was driving right behind him at his own initial speed. One thing was certain: The Major certainly knew how to motivate people.
Axolc tried to maintain his speed, but the more he ran, the harder it became to do that and shoot the targets at the same time. He accidentally missed one…
And then he felt a sharp pain in his leg. He looked down and saw that a dart had hit it. So that was the trick. He couldn’t slow down, or he’d get run over. He couldn’t miss a target, because if he did it would mean he would get hit by darts, which were probably poisoned with nonlethal but very painful toxins. And he couldn’t maintain his current speed and still hit the targets. So, he decided, he would have to improvise. He deliberately missed a couple of targets, and waited for them to hit the ground. As soon as he saw a panels open on the sides of the walls ahead, he dropped down flat in his tracks. His plan worked, the vehicle behind him rolled right over his prone body, leaving him unharmed. Thank nexus the tires were the size they were, or he never would have made it! Axolc lifted his head and watched as the vehicle continued straight on, right into the darts that were meant for him.
Back on his feet, Axolc dashed down the path, until he was right behind the vehicle. He grabbed on to the back fender and leapt into the backseat. Now above the darts, he turned to take out the targets behind him that he hadn’t had time to shoot during his maneuver. Once that was done, he climbed over to sit on the hood of the vehicle, still shooting targets as he went. Once he was positioned so that he was still on the vehicle but technically in front of it, he resumed shooting the targets at his leisure. By the time he reached the finish line, he felt pretty good about his performance.
The Major felt many things. Surprise was one. Approval was not.
“You missed the point of this exercise!” he exclaimed when the boy was done, “It was supposed to test your physical abilities, not your abilities to create loopholes! Although I see,” he continued with a growl, “that you value those abilities more.”
With that, he stormed off, leaving Axolc to wonder why the Major could expect so much of him. But then he realized that he didn’t know what the expectations had been, because he hadn’t even tried to meet them. He had taken the first exit to the path of least resistance, because he didn’t think he could take such a beating as had been set up for-
And then he realized that the beating wouldn’t have been as brutal if he hadn’t tried to charge straight in at high speeds. The pursuing vehicle had matched his initial speed, so his overeager start had set him up for the harder work. And yesterday he had spent the entire day attacking the Major without pause.
He had finally gotten the message: he was reckless.
He sat down and thought about that. He didn’t even notice when the sun went down.
At daybreak he was still thinking about it.
Under normal circumstances, the Major approved of “thinking outside the box,” but Axolc had crossed that fine line to cheating.
But now Axolc knew it, and by the looks of it, he had gotten the Major’s point. The Major hadn’t seen Axolc jump headfirst into anything after the target range. But there was just one problem: it seemed that all the time the Major had spent trying to get Axolc to see the point, he had driven it a bit too far. Axolc was taking too much time analyzing every risk (at least the Major hoped that that’s what he was doing) and what was worse, he hadn’t heard Axolc crack any jokes either. That would have to change soon, or Praxer and Reyna would have the Major’s head.
So the Major devised exercises for the next couple of days that required quick thinking and instincts. Unfortunately, while the boy was analyzing risks much faster, he still had to measure every one. By the fifth day of training, The Major was forced to use drastic measures. He would have to leave subtlety and learning by doing behind. He told Axolc to pack, because they were ending training early. Once they were completely ready to leave, the Major invited Axolc to sit down with him for a little chat.
The Major began by asking him, “Do you know what my point was in the first few exercises?”
“Then what was it?”
“I was reckless, sir.”
“Do you know why that’s a problem?”
“Should you ever go rushing in without thinking?”
The Major took a deep breath. “Good,” he said, “One last thing: Did you know that you sound like Praxer when you call me ‘sir’?”
Axolc blinked, tried to keep a straight face, failed, and burst out laughing. The Major laughed with him. When they had both recovered the Major rested one hand on his knee and said, “Making light is a good thing, especially when the people you work with are overly serious. Team morale is extremely important, and from what I gathered, you’re the only one holding it up.” He gestured to his audience. “And being reckless just means you’re fearless to the point of foolishness. You need to find a proper balance between caution and recklessness. Be too reckless and you’ll get smashed, be too cautious and opportunities escape you. So here’s the real point: you can be as reckless as you want when you have friends to hold you back, but when you’re on your own out there, you need to be able to do it yourself.” He paused for a second, and then continued, “But when you’re in combat, however, you will rarely time to calculate risks. So you need to be able to make quick, decisive choices. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
By this point Axolc had brightened up quite a bit. “Yes SIR!” he said eagerly.
“Good,” the Major replied, “Now do you want to go back now like I said we would, or do you want to train a bit more to try and achieve this balance?”
Judging by his expression, being given the choice was the last thing Axolc had expected. He pondered a moment, before replying, “I want to stay for rest of the week.”
The Major nodded, “Good, then let’s get going.”
Axolc was confused. “Wait, but I thought that we would do what I-“
“Which is why we are going to a different training area I have set up elsewhere.” the Major interrupted, “Do you think I was going to have us pack up when we might just have to unpack again?”
‘Oh’ Axolc thought as he jumped into the shotgun seat. The Major climbed in on the other side, and soon they were on their way to their next destination.
Along the way, Axolc realized that he had been keeping track of the general directions they had been moving, and realized that, if the Major and Prax had moved straight in the direction they had departed from when they had set off to train, the path the Major and Axolc were taking now would cross that path, maybe even the training ground itself. Then Axolc realized that that was where they were heading. He would be seeing what Praxer had gone through during his training.
When their destination was in sight, the Major started to slow down. Axolc had thought they had already been going slow enough BEFORE this happened, so he leapt out of the vehicle while it was still driving and started to run alongside it. He was actually pretty fast, even without his Daredevil kit.
“Betcha 200 coins I can beat that snail to the campsite!” he yelled back as he started gaining ground.
The moment he finished saying this though, he heard engines revving up, and was literally blown off his feet as the Major whooshed by in a blur. Half a second later, he made a hard left turn and brought the vehicle to a screeching halt in front of the campsite. He casually hopped and leaned back on it, arms folded, as Axolc approached. “Never bet against me,” he said, “or you’ll always lose.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!" Axolc panted, "What did you pour on that slug’s engines?!”
The Major perked up. “Funny you should ask,” he said, as if it just occurred to him that Axolc had actually come up with a valid reason the Major had never thought of, “It’s my own invention: a special gasoline blend that has the effect of five cups of espresso on any kind of machine. In fact, Espresso is one of the primary ingredients.”
“Wait wha-what?!” If there was one thing Axolc had expected, it was not that the literal meaning of his statement would be true. “So you cheated!”
“You should know. And like I said, never bet against me.” The Major cocked his head to one side and held out his palm, without unfolding his arms, saying, “Now pay up.”
Axolc grumbled an inaudible retort as he handed over the money. They then got to work on unloading their gear. By the time they were done, it was nightfall, so they decided they would go to bed and begin training in the morning. Axolc rested his head on his hands as he stared up at the starry sky, and for the first time started to wonder about the place they were in. Not just these jade green hills, but the entire planet as well. He wondered where the inhabitants were, what they were like, how he was descended from them, which ones he was descended from, what was for breakfast tomorrow, whether the Major’s rations could taste any worse, what the local food was like, whether hot dogs had been invented yet, why he felt so hungry all of a sudden, why the stars looked different in the present he was from, whether he should really be calling it the present since technically from where he was it was the future, how many grammar mistakes he had made in that last thought, whether everyone talked like the Bone person they had met, what that Bone person was doing now, what Praxer and the others were doing now, what they would be having for breakfast tomorrow…
His thoughts eventually lulled him to sleep.
For the rest of their week, the Major spent more time training Axolc personally, as they had done on their not-terribly-productive first day. This time however, they were making progress.
Naturally the Major had to go easy on the boy, as he had done that day, before he had tried to grab his helmet. The Major did not regret shooting him for that. He needed to make it clear that the helmet was off-limits, even if that meant shooting the boy with a stun-charge. Despite the result, his weapon had actually been set to stun, so the only problem was the fact that it became significantly more powerful at point-blank range.
The Major shook his head to bring himself to the present. Right now he and Axolc were doing some work with Axolc’s aim. It was fairly good, but not perfect by human standards, and human standards were easy compared to the Major’s standards. He was not a perfectionist; he just believed that it was possible for the boy to do better with a little practice. Crux, when The Major was his age…
‘Snap out of it!’ the Major thought to himself, ‘Or you’ll both get killed because you were too distracted!’
“Hold on, Axolc,” the Major said as he watched him train from the sides, “You’re gripping the guns too hard.” Axolc loosened his grip to the other extreme, “Now too loosely. You need to hold them just enough to keep the average bloke from doing THIS.” In one fluid motion the Major lunged forward and slapped the gun from the nearest of boy’s hands, careful to hit the gun and not the hand. Axolc was baffled.
“Sir, you’re not exactly ‘the average bloke’…” Axolc nervously pointed out.
“Hmm… You’re right. Maybe I ought to go a little bit easier on you. Here, let me try again-”
The Major used the same move again, disarming the boy’s other hand. He didn’t try to do it any less forcefully than before. “Oh, I guess I’m just too good to even pretend to be bad. Oh well, I suppose it's all the better for you in the long run.” The Major shrugged and turned to walk back to his position.
“For what it’s worth sir, I think you can be plenty bad when you want to.” Axolc replied to the Major's back, “In fact, I might even say you’re the worst.”
“What do you mean ‘might’?!”
Both of them burst out laughing, it was good to see Axolc back to normal. For a second, The Major wondered why he was trying so hard not to get attached to these kids, and then why bother since he was failing miserably. But then he remembered the last discussion he had had with Praxer, and this brought him back to his senses. “Back to work,” he said in his old, militaristic, not in any way facetious voice.
Axolc nodded, and after retrieving his pistols, resumed firing at the target set up. The Major had set up a challenge in the obstacle course, where Axolc had to shoot straight through the line of swinging sandbags and hit a target behind them, without damaging any of the sandbags. Axolc was actually quite good, actually better than the Major had expected he would be at this early stage.
But a head start never means the race is over. Axolc still had a little room left for improvement before he met the Major’s expectations.
So the days went by, until the last day was almost upon them. The Major had spent his spare time (when Axolc wasn’t looking) devising a new exercise for their last day of training. He finished it the night before, and when he stepped back to admire his work, he almost impressed himself. The best he had hoped was for it to be adequate only given the time-restraints, but he found that his handiwork would have been adequate under any normal circumstances. With this sense of accomplishment in mind, he went to bed.
His pleasure didn’t last though, because that night he had the dream again.
The Major woke up with a start, as he had done so quite frequently since he had accepted this job. He got up with a groan, and shook his head groggily, wondering what was happening to him. He knew that this was not normal; he rarely had the dream at all. At least he did before he had accepted this mission. Now he was getting it more and more frequently. He thought he knew why, but he would not let himself consider the possibility until some solid evidence was thrown in his face. However, this resolve was weakening, and he doubted he would be able to keep up the self-deception for much longer.
Not for the first time, he marveled at just how self aware he was, not just because he was self aware, but because he was self aware of being self aware. Now the only thing he needed was a way to express this notion that made complete sense to him, and then maybe to the rest of the world as an added bonus.
In any event, he couldn’t help but feel unnerved after having the dream again. He knew that would be a problem, if the feeling was still there when training began…
Training! He had forgotten his new exercise! This wouldn't have alarmed him, except that it was an all-day exercise, and it wouldn't be fair to give his student a late start with a set deadline. He rushed over to Axolc’s bed to wake him up. Axolc was still snoring, as content as… (the Major searched for an appropriate analogy)… a pig. That was it: content as a fat, happy little piglet. His snoring almost sounded like one, too.
The Major almost laughed at the last part of his comparison, but managed to wake Axolc up without cracking up. “Last day of training, Sleeping Beauty!! Up and at ’em!!”
Axolc got up groggily, and stayed that way until he had eaten breakfast. Tsk, what a waste it would be, to be like that in the morning. Not productive at all.
Once they were ready, The Major led Axolc over to where they would be having the final day’s activity. It was a maze-type obstacle course, located in the forest. The Major explained how Axolc would have to escape the forest before dawn to succeed. He explained how, although at times some areas might look open, he would always be enclosed by wooden palisades. The rule was that he could not in any way attempt to bypass these palisades, since they were built to indicate boundaries as opposed to provide them. The Major also said that he had set up a couple of surprises if Axolc went the wrong way. Axolc would know by now what to expect when the Major used the term "surprise".
The only thing Axolc was unsure about was that the Major had never said what he would be doing during that time. But Axolc soon discarded these worries, knowing, or maybe just hoping, that the Major would not have designed the course to be beyond his abilities. So he did not let the Major’s vagueness worry him more than was justified, considering this was the Major they were talking about.
The Major handed Axolc a pair of flintlock pistols, and watched as the boy walked over to the entrance, took a deep breath, and jumped through.
Axolc had been running all morning, and was starting to tire out. But he wasn’t going to stop and break until he was absolutely certain that he was safe from whatever “surprises” the Major had set up. So far he had seen none. So far he had kept on running. So far he had not reached the end.
So he kept running, until he ran straight into a wall.
He looked up at the wall he had just crashed into. It was simple, made of wooden shafts stuck in the ground vertically and lined up side-by-side. It was too high to jump over or see over, maybe even too high to climb over. It was as tall as most of the trees, and they were pretty tall – for redwoods.
He turned to his left and started to follow the wall. With any luck, if he stuck to the wall it would lead him out of the forest by nightfall.
The Major was starting to rethink his decision to leave Axolc.
At first he had thought that since it would take all day to get through the maze, it would be the perfect opportunity to head to the local village to buy supplies, as well as information. But now that he was actually there, he was starting to have second thoughts. What if Axolc completed the maze before he got back? What if the maze ended up being too hard? What if the mysterious warriors came back? What if other warriors found them?
The Major took a deep breath, and, not for the first time, calmly and logically answered the questions to himself. There was no way Axolc could complete the maze before sundown unless he cheated, and the Major trusted him not to. The maze had been designed at non-lethal difficulty, so if anything happened it wouldn’t kill the boy. The mysterious warriors would think twice before coming back; it would be a while before they regained enough courage and foolishness to come back for seconds. As for other warriors, that was about as likely as Roo Morg learning how to fly.
The Major shook his head, and then resumed searching for the items on his shopping list. He had found a free, relatively readable map of crux half an hour ago, so he had sat down at an outdoor cafe, and was now in the process of committing it to memory. At the same time, he made a list in his head of the things they would need to figure out for the Nexus Force. He had not forgotten the reason he was here… yet.
His list went something like this:
What Nexus Force Needs to Know: 1. Roughly how much of the Legend of Crux is true 2. How the war between the original inhabitants began 3. What weapons were used in that war 4. Who won that war/How it ended 5. Who was descended from whom (since the legend says each faction was descended from a different tribe/people) 6. What was life like for those tribes/peoples 7. What knowledge gained in the past can help aid the fight against the Maelstrom in the future
…When he had reviewed his list in his mind, he decided to make a second one, which went like this:
What Nexus Force Does NOT Need to Know: 1. EXACTLY how much of the Legend of Crux is true 2. Anything of or related to the First Builders 3. Anything of or related to their first creation 4. Anything of or related to the Major’s...ancestral significance
The Major cut it at that. Just these little lists would be very time consuming without getting elaborate with them. He tried checking off what he already knew, and realized that this was approximately… his second list. It just figured.
The Major stood up from the outdoor café seat he had been sitting on, and stretched his legs. He was about to leave when a waitress came over with his check. One would think that a medieval village would have an easier to dodge system of payment at outdoor cafes and such, but apparently this was not the case. He dropped a couple coins on the table and turned to leave. The waitress stopped him again, but this time, a bit more aggressively.
And then it dawned on the Major that he had no idea what was used for the local currency.
This was not good.
He turned around to face the waitress and glanced to the left and right. No one was watching, but of course he already knew that; he was just doing it for the theater. He reached into his bag and slipped out a light green gem. He kept glancing left and right to keep his act up as he handed the gem to the waitress, putting his finger to where one would guess his lips would be. The waitress got the message, and let him go. One disaster narrowly avoided.
The Major decided his next priority would be to look into the local currency. Since the kind in the future had evidently not been invented yet, he figured it would be better to pawn a few of the spare items he had brought with him. That Dragon Helm would come in handy.
He looked around, but he couldn’t find any sort of trading post where he could sell his items. The marketplace was packed, so he was finding it difficult to move around efficiently. The Major did not like crowds.
“It’s such a shame,” he thought, “Since I’m in the past I no longer have one of my greatest weapons: infamy. Oh well, it can’t be helped.”
He continued searching until something caught his eye. One stall had a sign that read:
UNCLE THOKI’S SUPER SHOP!!! WEAPONS, ARMOR, AND MORE!!
The Major decided to skip this stall, because he didn’t want to attract any attention. He was almost certain that if he went there, he would be recognized, and his cover would be blown. He walked by without making any more eye contact.
The person manning the stall, however, did.
Axolc had just encountered the Major’s first “surprise.” He had set off a trip wire, which caused the two trees on either side of him to fall down on the place he had just been standing. He had run into this trap when he had tried backtracking to see if he was going in circles, and apparently he wasn’t, just in spirals. So he kept on moving.
It was late afternoon, and the sun was starting to fall down to the distant horizon. Axolc knew he had no time to waste. At the moment, he was running through an area where the walls were close and in plain sight, much different from how it had been when he’d started. He came to a fork in the road, and on a whim, chose left. He was nearly impaled by a horde of flying spears, which happened to look just like the elite javelins he used to use in training back home. He decided to grab one in case he might need it later.
He moved back to the fork, and headed down the correct path.
It was nearly sundown, and the Major was driving back to the training grounds.
He kept checking his chronometer, he had lost track of time in the market, and was unsure if he’d be able to make it. He had no excuse prepared in the event that Axolc finished the challenge before the Major returned, and he was unsure how the boy would react if he told him the truth.
He shifted the gears, and accelerated well beyond reasonable speeds.